Moderate adversity can make you a happier person

After a trauma, the majority of people report they grow stronger

School’s out and, for some, leaving school behind also means leaving bullying behind. They carry the scars – but it’s not all bad news. As you might expect, people who have been bullied at school tend to be less optimistic than average later in life. But here’s an important exception: when they face negative situations in the future they are likely to be more optimistic than their peers.

What you might find even more surprising – this is according to psychologist Dr Jolanta Burke – people who were bullied on a daily basis at school are likely to be the most optimistic of all in negative situations. I am drawing on a fascinating article by Burke in the current edition of Éisteach, journal of the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Her interest is in positive psychology which is not so much about positive thinking as about resilience and the ways in which we can develop resources to address life situations. Life’s adversities can lead to depression, aggression, anxiety, suicidal thinking and other very negative outcomes. But this is by no means inevitable.

For instance, after a traumatic event such as receiving a serious illness diagnosis, up to a third of people experience very adverse psychological symptoms. However, the majority report that they are able to be resilient and grow stronger.

And people who experience moderate adversity in life – the sort most of us are familiar with – seem to be happier than those who have been protected completely.

Bullying can lead people to re-live disturbing memories after they have finished school and this can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking. Yet this isn’t the whole story and it’s important for people who have experienced bullying to understand that.

Burke’s research covered 2,441 students aged 12-19 from 13 schools across Ireland. As I mentioned, people who are bullied tend to be less optimistic than their peers except in negative situations. She found that those who had been bullied daily reported higher levels of optimism in negative situations than those who had been bullied less often or than those who had not been bullied at all.

That optimism is made up of a number of components. One is the belief that they themselves are not to blame for having been bullied. A second is the understanding that the bullying situation is temporary. A third is the conviction that there is more to life than the bullying, that you can have enjoyable activities outside of the school and even in the school. Now, it is important to note that those who are bullied suffer; it’s a horrible experience. But their capacity to be resilient and to be optimistic seems to develop alongside that suffering.

What changes form part of that resilience? One is that having gone through hell and come out the other side, people may feel stronger and more confident in themselves. Also, they know who their true friends are and this strengthens relationships with these people. And they develop a personal philosophy of life that stands to them in the future.

People coming through other traumatic situations may also experience a change in priorities. For example, they want to enjoy the important things in life more – an illness might have this effect, for instance. Many people return to spiritual practices following traumatic experiences.

You’ll also see growth like this happening in somebody whose marriage has suddenly collapsed. They go through hell but when they have come through this, they have changed out of recognition and are stronger, happier people. But I’m not denying that they go through hell along the way and that not everybody makes it out safely to the other side.

Burke (jolantaburke.com) is a lecturer at the University of East London and a visiting researcher at Trinity College Dublin. The positive psychology movement in which she is interested was developed by Dr Martin Seligman and you can learn more about his approach in his book Authentic Happiness.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.

pomorain@yahoo.com Twitter: @PadraigOMorain