How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity

It’s an age-old question: is it possible to thrive, not just survive, in the face of adversity?

Countless of best-selling books and blockbuster movies have been made about unexpected heroes, people who succeeded despite the obstacles in their way. But how exactly can you flourish when you’re living with chronic illness, financial troubles or strained relationships?

For decades, the field of psychology focused mostly on preventing and treating mental health problems. But when you’re trying to fix problems and reduce suffering, by definition you’re working to get people to a neutral state, to “zero”. It wasn’t until twenty years ago that renowned psychologists started to investigate how you can lead a good and happy life – how you can get from a mediocre “5” to a blooming “8”.

Flourishing means you’re living in the optimal range of human functioning, where you experience positive emotions, find fulfillment and accomplish meaningful tasks, most of the time. It’s not the same as simply being happy. When people are asked how satisfied they are with their lives, their answer depends strongly on their current mood. But a ‘good’ life depends on more than fleeting feelings of happiness.

In his book ‘Flourish’,  Martin Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, states that you need 5 elements for optimal wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. This PERMA-model is a good template for how to flourish in life, but how do you put these pillars into action, especially during tough times?

Have a look at these 32 actionable strategies from the world’s experts on how to flourish.

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How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity

This blog post contains affiliate links to resources you might find useful. All opinions are my own. 

Cultivate Positive Emotions

Like all emotions, positive emotions such as joy, hope, love and inspiration arise from the way you interpret events. This means you have more control over your feelings than you might think. So how can you purposely generate more positivity?

  • 01. Find the good in every day. See the world with new eyes. You can notice the beauty in any situation if you turn your attention to everyday sensations: feeling the sun on your face, sipping a sooting cup of tea, hearing the birds chirping.
  • 02. Practice the art of savoring. Relish the moment and engage all your senses during pleasurable moments to create a vivid memory.
  • 03. Do the “What-Went-Well” exercise. Research proves that practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to feel happier. So each night, write down three things that went well that day, and why they went well. The more you focus on the positive things in life, the more you start noticing them.
  • 04. Smile. Did you know that we don’t just smile because we’re happy, but that the reverse is also true? Studies showed that putting a smile on your face can actually make you feel cheerful. Of course, genuine joy is still best, so make time for laughter: watch comedies, catch up with fun friends and look for the humour in everyday situations.
  • 05. Sprinkle simple pleasures throughout your day. Boost your mood by doing more things you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a big outing; tiny moments of bliss work just fine.
  • 06. Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation. This meditation exercise helps you develop compassion towards yourself and others. That sounds simple, but according to science, doing loving-kindess meditations lowers stress, decreases pain levels and improves relationships.
  • 07. Bring playfulness back into your life. We tend to see play as the fun activities that kids do, but according to dr. Stuart Brown, grown-ups are also designed by nature to flourish through play. Playing fuels your happiness, connection with others, creativity and problem-solving abilities. So try to cultivate a mindset of play, even – or especially – on bad days.
  • 08. Embrace the entire spectrum of emotions. Anger, sadness, frustration and jealousy are normal parts of life, not something you should avoid or suppress. When there’s a healthy balance of negative and positive feelings – the famous 3:1 positivity ratio – you build the necessary resilience to bounce back from difficult times.

Read more topnotch research on creating an upward spiral in ‘Positivity’ from Barbara Fredrickson.

How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity | The Health Sessions
Image by Adam Stones

Find New Meaning

The wildly-popular article from The Atlantic There’s More to Life Than Being Happy describes how leading a rewarding life isn’t the same as being happy. Happiness is a fleeting feeling, but meaning, on the other hand, is enduring: it connects the past to the present to the future.

When negative things happen to you, your happiness drops but your sense of meaning grows. Studies show that people who have a clear purpose in life reported higher life satisfaction, even when they were feeling bad, than those who don’t have a higher goal. But how can you craft a meaningful life when you’re struggling and in pain?

  • 09. See the silver linings. There’s no denying that having problems blows, but facing adversity can have some positive side-effects too. In his book David and GoliathMalcolm Gladwell documents how people who face significant disadvantages in life can develop unique strengths that later provide them advantages. Maybe your difficulties could lead you to get in touch with your emotions, learn to listen to your body, strengthen friendships or give you valuable insights.
  • 10. Find new ways to make a positive contribution to the world. You don’t have to work a socially responsible job or donate money to do good. Even when you’re broke, sick or sad you can put your qualities to use towards something bigger than yourself. Spread a little joy with (random) acts of kindness. Adopt a new eco-friendly habit. Start a blog with helpful tips about a topic you know inside out. Send loved ones in need a comforting post card of care package. The simplest things can have a significant impact on others.
  • 11. Rewrite your story. How you became the person you are, isn’t just the sum of the facts of your life – it’s your own meaningful interpretation of events. You can choose to write a new narrative, by framing your past of your personality in a more constructive way.
  • 12. Turn your wounds into wisdom. Share what you’ve learned from going through your problems. Everybody has their own struggles with different circumstances, but getting information, helpful tips or support from someone who understands what you’re going through is so valuable.
  • 13. Contemplate your higher purpose. You don’t have to strive for world peace or a cure for cancer – a purpose serves as a guiding principle in your life, something that transcends your day-to-day actions. Your higher goal can be anything that has a positive impact on your life and the world: raising confident and caring children, dedicating yourself to your job or working on your recovery from illness.

Read more on finding fulfillment in life in ‘The Power of Meaning’ by Emily Esfahani Smith.

How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity | The Health Sessions
All other images by Maria van Doorn | Despina Design

Build Strong Relationships

We are social beings, who crave connections, love, emotional bonds and physical interaction with other people. Having close family and friends you can rely on in times of trouble proves to be a good buffer, supporting your overall health and wellbeing. Here are some ways to build and foster positive relationships with the people in your life:

  • 14. Be kind. Because like the saying goes, everyone is fighting their own battles. It’s easy to get irritated by annoying people, but if you automatically assume that everyone has the best intentions or a reason for their actions, than both you and them have a much more positive experience.
  • 15. Make high-quality connections. You don’t have to be a social butterfly to have strong relationships. When you’re short on time or energy, regular short but sweet interactions will do just fine. Try to mix in-person contact with online socializing. Our voices say so much more than just the words coming out of our mouths.
  • 16. Really listen. Let’s be honest, we don’t always give our partners in dialogue the attention they deserve. Next time you’re meeting your mates, try to talk less and listen more. Ask genuine questions and read between the lines. Be understanding. Put yourself in their shoes. We all long to be heard.
  • 17. Don’t isolate yourself. When you’re bed bound, depressed or ashamed of your problems, avoiding contact with your family and friends may seem like the best (or only) option. But did you know that the pain centers in your brain become activated when you feel lonely or socially rejected? So even on bad days, when all you want to do is hide under the covers, make an effort to reach out and stay in touch with family and friends.
  • 18. Practice compassionTuning into other people’s feelings and taking action to help them improves relationships, boosts your resilience and gives you a more optimistic outlook on life.
  • 19. Ask for support. It’s ok to turn to others when you’re struggling. You may feel awkward, but it helps to be specific about what you need: practical help, emotional support, information or advice… And don’t just think about reaching out to the people in your life: medical professionals, social workers, support groups and peers going the same problems can be a great source of help too.
  • 20. Expand your social circle. Meeting new people and making new friends as an adult isn’t as easy as when you were younger. But it all starts with simple interactions: saying hi to your neighbours, having a chat with the regular faces in the coffee shop, joining an interactive class or signing up for a buddy system.
  • 21. Combat loneliness. Loneliness isn’t just about being alone, it’s about feeling alone, like no one really understands you. Being chronically lonely literally hurts – and it hurts your health too. So make a plan to fight the mental and emotional patterns underlying your loneliness. Reach out to your loved ones or get professional help. You are not alone.

Read more on building relationships in the timeless bestseller ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ from Dale Carnegie.

How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity | The Health Sessions

Redefine Achievement

Having meaningful goals to pursue gives you a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction when you finally achieve them. Putting the effort in to accomplish your ambitions helps you thrive. But when you’re sick, achieving goals becomes much more challenging. Have a look at how to flourish in the face of adversity by redefining the concept of ‘achievement’.

  • 22. Redefine what ‘success’ means to you. Our society focuses so much on getting good grades, working prestigious jobs and living the white-picket-fence fantasy, that it’s easy to forget that ‘being successful’ has many faces. What matters to you? Maybe you care about being a compassionate person, leading a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle or becoming financially independent. Given your situation, how can you live your best life, one that’s in line with your values, interests and talents?
  • 23. Focus on your strengths, not your shortcomings. When you’re chronically ill, you’re constantly faced with everything you can’t do – and feeling bad about that. So list your strong points instead, and come up with ways on how you can use them to cope with your problems.
  • 24. Set new goals within your possibilities. Ok, so maybe your health struggles or money problems stop you from traveling the globe like you dreamt. But who says you can’t explore the world in a different, doable way? You could save up for a budget trip, make a list of the (accessible) nearby cities, museums and national parks you wish to visit, camp out in your own back yard, do a house swap… You get the idea. Give old dreams a realistic spin and find creative solutions to reach your goals.
  • 25. Concentrate on the work itself, not the end result. Like William Penn said, “To have striven, to have made the effort, to have been true to certain ideals – this alone is worth the struggle.” You won’t always succeed in what you do, but knowing you’ve tried makes it easier to accept that things don’t always work out.
  • 26. Pick your priorities. No matter what the Superwoman Syndrome will have you believe, you can’t do everything, at least not at once. So shape your schedule with intention and impact. Don’t just write down all your to do’s, but also make a not-to-do list – things you won’t waste any more time on.
  • 27. Make a ‘reversed bucket list’: a track record of all the things you’ve already accomplished in life. Whatever the future brings, no one can take that away from you.
  • 28. Write down what makes you you. Because you are not your illness or your problems. Yes, it’s a big part of your life, and intrinsically linked to your identity, but it’s not the only thing that defines you. You are also a daughter or a husband, a proud American or a down-to-earth Dutchman, a feminist or an environmentalist, an avid book reader or outdoorsy sports guy.

How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity | The Health Sessions

Engage Yourself in the Present Moment

Do you know that feeling when you’re entirely absorbed by what you’re doing? This state is called ‘flow’, and being completely engaged in an activity for it’s own sake like that focuses your mind, stretches your skills, produces positive emotions and increases your coping abilities. So how can you reach that state of flow?

  • 29. Do more activities that make you lose track of time. That sounds like a luxury, especially during tough times, but doing things you enjoy is a powerful antidote against feelings of depression, anxiety and rumination. Maybe it can even let you forget our pain and worries for a little while. So whatever pleasurable activity takes up all of your attention – painting, running, playing chess – carve out time in your busy week to do it.
  • 30. Practice active forms of meditation. Who says you have to sit in lotus in order to meditate? Embrace mindfulness in motion: do a walking meditation, lose yourself intuitive dancing or practice slow movement like t’ai chi, qigong and yoga.
  • 31. Get in touch with nature. Being outdoors is a powerful way to engage all your sense and live in the moment – and great for your health too. So if you want to flourish in life, get your daily nature fix.
  • 32. Keep challenging yourself. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading expert on flow, flow is most likely to happen when your skills are fully involved in a rewarding activity that’s demanding but doable. In order to thrive, you should occasionally wander the edges of your comfort zone, to grow your talents, skill set, creativity and mental muscles.

Read more about achieving this optimal state of consciousness in the classic ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

Empathy Cards for serious illness and loss

When it comes to flourishing in life, always remember: what you water, grows. That doesn’t mean you have to smile and be in a good mood all the time. But by focusing your attention on cultivating positive emotions, finding meaning and purpose, fostering strong relationships, creating your own definition of achievement and engaging yourself in the present, it is possible to thrive in tough times.

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Jennifer Mulder

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