How Embracing Stress Can Help You Be Happier

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why should you embrace stress? How can embracing stress as an integral part of your life help you live a happier and more fulfilling life?

Since early human civilization, ancient philosophers have claimed that stress is a normal part of life. Modern psychological research also shows that the most reported causes of stress are factors beyond your control (e.g. inflation). Furthermore, embracing stress helps you grow and develop as a person.

Here’s why you should embrace stress instead of avoiding it like a plague.

Embrace Stress as an Opportunity to Grow

McGonigal claims you can also make stress meaningful by realizing it can help you grow. She describes three ways to do this:

1. Believing good things can come from adversity. If you go through a difficult breakup, realize that the pain of this situation can also provide you with more freedom and an opportunity for personal development.

(Shortform note: Stoics believe that every situation has a positive side—it’s just a matter of perspective. In The Obstacle Is the Way, the author explains that viewing challenging situations as opportunities for good helps you overcome them. For example, if your car is rear-ended in traffic while you’re driving with your family, embrace this as an opportunity to handle the situation with grace and appreciate your family’s health. This will make the situation easier for you to cope with and allow you to support everyone involved more effectively than if you panic or get angry.)

2. Embracing stress to transform it into something that empowers you. For example, if you’re a teacher stressed about the difficulty of a lesson you’re teaching or the pile of papers left to grade on your desk, you might feel tempted to emotionally distance yourself from your students. But by limiting your availability to them, you may reduce the sense of meaning that students give your work. Instead, you could use your stress to form a deeper connection with students by being honest about your struggles and relating to their own sources of stress. In this way, you might cultivate a more comfortable, trusting environment for your students to learn in. 

(Shortform note: McGonigal isn’t the only psychologist who claims stress can be turned into strength. For example, one psychologist claims that with proper guidance, anxiety can lead to more conscientious behaviors. There are multiple ways to properly channel anxiety into healthy conscientiousness, such as prioritizing the most doable and impactful tasks and tempering your anxious concerns with data.)

3. Recognizing and celebrating signs of growth from difficult experiences. For example, If you’re finally able to drive without fear after a traumatizing car accident, share this progress with a friend who you know will appreciate your growth and encourage you.

(Shortform note: To celebrate growth, one expert suggests these tips: Keep track of your growth by journaling about your progress, give yourself credit for your hard work, share your success with people who love you, and keep a list of the things you’re grateful for.)

Be Honest About Your Stress

When you try to find benefits in your stress, McGonigal recommends aiming to develop a mindset that views stress in a realistic, balanced way, not with blind optimism. She suggests a couple of ways to help develop this outlook.

1. Recognize the positives and negatives of stress, but choose to focus on the positives. For example, you had to euthanize your old and sick dog. Rather than ignoring that this makes you sad and you miss them (their cuddles, going on walks together, or simply their presence in your home), acknowledge your feelings and focus on the positive side of the situation: Your dog is no longer suffering and you have wonderful memories to reflect on.

(Shortform note: Like McGonigal, the author of The Happiness Advantage makes the case that you shouldn’t let your optimistic point of view blind you from real problems. Rather, you should look at situations realistically and choose to maintain a positive outlook because this will lead to more happiness, gratitude, and optimism. To develop a positive perspective, consider incorporating these habits into your regular routine: Every day, take five minutes to write three things you’re grateful for. Three times per week, write for 20 minutes about a positive experience.)

2. Don’t try to force a silver lining on a negative situation in a way that’s insincere or delusional. There might not be an upside to extreme traumas or even trivial, daily activities, and that’s OK. If there’s no obvious upside at the moment, McGonigal suggests trying to think about how you might benefit from the situation in the future. For example, when a loved one dies, think of the qualities that made them a positive influence on your life. Imagine ways you could embody these qualities one day to have a more positive impact on the people in your life and honor your loved one’s legacy. 

(Shortform note: Experts say if you try to impose a positive perspective on every situation, you risk negative outcomes including ignoring real suffering, belittling grief, lowering self-esteem, and causing relationship issues. Instead, process negative feelings by identifying and discussing them. One study shows that doing this reduces the intensity of the emotions. To avoid “toxic positivity,” realize negative feelings are normal, identify the type of emotions you’re experiencing, and talk about them with people you trust.)

How Embracing Stress Can Help You Be Happier

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Upside of Stress summary:

  • Why stress is an ally that should be embraced
  • How stress can lead to enhanced health, greater success, and a more meaningful life
  • How to change your mindset about stress to receive its benefits

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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