Facing Adversity? Here’s How to Overcome It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you currently facing adversity? Do you want to know how to deal with adversity and overcome it?

It can be particularly difficult to remain optimistic when facing adversity—but the key is to change how you respond to the challenge. The best way is to see adversity as an opportunity for growth and personal development.

Here’s how you can reframe challenges when facing adversity.

Advice for Facing Adversity

When facing adversity, you have three options:

  1. Keep circling around the problem, which will result in no change. 
  2. Make bad choices that create further negative consequences, thereby putting you in an even worse position than before. 
  3. Take the setback as an opportunity to build resilience, improve your abilities, and increase your fortitude. This is the Third Path, or the act of “falling up.”

Facing adversity is inevitable, but, if you stay positive during challenging times, you will not only carry on, but also learn and grow through the process. In fact, the most traumatic and heart-wrenching experiences can also be the most positive and transformative when people remain optimistic and find ways to rise above their hardships. People who choose to fall up in the face of traumas—such as chronic and life-threatening illnesses, natural disasters, and military combat—experience Post-Traumatic Growth or Adversarial Growth, which results in increased: 

  • Compassion
  • Openness
  • Personal strength
  • Satisfaction with life
  • Self-confidence
  • Spirituality
  • Appreciation for and intimacy in social relationships

When facing adversity, instead of seeing failure as something to avoid or endure, when you learn to fall up, failure becomes an invaluable opportunity for growth. When you fall down, don’t simply get back up and return to the status quo—take a deliberate approach to your challenge and fall up to greater heights. Successful people and organizations frame failure as a stepping stone to greatness, and one that forces them to face adversity in the following ways:

  • Be more creative to work around obstacles
  • Accelerate their learning to find alternative routes and solutions
  • Increase their competitiveness to avoid getting snagged on the same hurdles in the future 

Many companies and organizations highly value failing early and often because those failures provide opportunities to learn before investing too heavily in a particular model, project, or approach. Bearing this in mind is useful when facing adversity. For example, the CEO of Coca-Cola is known for beginning each of his annual investor meetings by talking about all of the products the company created that year but never launched. Rather than a parade of the company’s failures, the presentation serves as an opportunity to highlight lessons learned and to reflect on how those lessons will position Coca-Cola to grow to greater heights. 

Avoid Learned Helplessness

Even without knowing the big-picture benefits of the Third Path, anyone could see that moving past an obstacle is better than letting it defeat you. So, why doesn’t everyone choose to fall up? Simply put, when you get knocked down, it’s hard to pick yourself up and carry on. Generally, when faced with the stress of a crisis, most people get so caught up in their misfortune they forget that a Third Path exists. 

When you’re defeated by failures often enough, giving up becomes habitual. This phenomenon, called learned helplessness, explains why some people don’t even bother trying to improve their circumstances. This effect was first discovered in the 1960s, when scientists put dogs into a compartment and delivered a small shock every time they rang a bell. After the dogs had learned to expect the shock, the researchers moved the dogs into a box with two compartments—one with shocks, and one without. Although the dogs could have easily jumped over the divider into the safe compartment, when they heard the bell, they simply stayed put and endured the shock. The dogs’ conditioning had taught them to be helpless.

A similar experiment showed that the same is true of humans: Two groups of people were put into rooms with panels of buttons that would supposedly turn off a blaring noise. However, the first group was given a trick panel, and, despite their best efforts, they couldn’t turn off the noise. By contrast, the second group’s buttons worked, and they quickly and easily silenced the loud noise. Afterward, both groups entered a new room with panels that turned off the noise with a simple hand movement—but, while the second group quickly shut off the noise, the first group had been conditioned to give up, and they didn’t even bother trying. 

Learned helplessness prevents people from even considering a Third Path. Making matters worse, learned helplessness tends to spread to all areas of life. In other words, if you develop learned helplessness at work, you’re likely to also give up when you face personal challenges. Once you submit to helplessness in all areas of your life, you’re on the path to pessimism and depression, which also impede your ability to see opportunities to rise above defeat, creating a vicious cycle. 

How to Deal With Adversity

Here’s some practical advice for how to deal with adversity. In order to find a way to fall up, use facing adversity as a building block for your personal growth, rather than an obstacle in your path. To change your mindset, examine it:

  1. What counterfacts do you use? A counterfact is a hypothetical alternative scenario that you use to frame the reality. For example, if you get shot in the arm, your counterfact determines whether you consider yourself unlucky for getting shot or lucky for not having been shot in the head. You have the power to create your counterfact—a counterfact that encourages positivity brings the motivation and performance benefits that we’ve discussed, while a negative one distorts your perspective to make obstacles seem greater than they actually are. 
  2. What is your explanatory style, or the way in which you make sense of a challenging event? People with an optimistic explanatory style view adversity as specific and temporary, while people with a pessimistic one view adversity as widespread and permanent (this view leads to learned helplessness). 
Facing Adversity? Here’s How to Overcome It

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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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