Major negative life events, such as the death of a loved one, the dissolution of an important relationship, or the diagnosis of a serious illness, can be painful and isolating. But these experiences can also sometimes bring about unexpected positive changes. Here are 5 of them:
1. You become more compassionate and less judgemental.
Experiencing suffering yourself can make you more compassionate towards others who are suffering. Often, when witnessing others’ hardships, people look for reasons to blame the victim for their plight (e.g., “He’s struggling financially because he doesn't work hard enough," or, "She’s sick because she worked too hard and didn't take care of herself’), thereby reducing their own sense of vulnerability. But when you've suffered deeply, you’re more likely to recognize that everyone is vulnerable, and that bad things happen to good people all the time. Someone else’s suffering no longer represents a threat, but rather can be a source of connection and kinship.
2. You discover that you’re stronger than you thought you were.
In the early stages of a negative life event, you may think to yourself, “There’s no way I can get through this.” But somehow, day by day, you manage to put one foot in front of the other, despite the pain you may feel. One of the things that hardship does is show you your true strength—the strength you didn’t know you had until it was really tested. Supporting this idea, research on affective forecasting suggests that we tend to overestimate how devastated we’ll be by negative life events and how long the pain will last—in other words, we’re more resilient than we think.
3. You learn who your true friends are.
In difficult times, certain relationships are likely to deepen, while others may fade away. Discovering that some people are fair-weather friends, disappearing when you need them most, can be painful, but it’s also an opportunity to develop a new appreciation for the people who do stick around, and to focus your energy on those relationships. Research suggests that sometimes even weaker social ties--people you weren’t very close with to begin with—can rise to the occasion and prove to be very supportive in high stress situations.
4. You get greater clarity on what you want in life.
Sometimes a crisis can jolt you into re-evaluating your life in a major way. It can force you to ask yourself if you’re really doing what makes you happy and spending your time how you want to, or with the people you want to spend it with. Jarring as these re-evaluations can be, they can push you to make positive changes that may not have seemed like realistic possibilities before, for one reason or another—fear of failure, concerns about what other people would think, or just the inertia of the status quo. But these factors just don’t carry as much weight when the reality that life is fragile and unpredictable takes hold.
5. You find joy in unexpected places.
When your world is shaken up, it can cast a dark cloud over everything, making it difficult to enjoy what you once enjoyed. But sometimes joy can sneak up on you in the most unexpected ways and remind you that there is still beauty in the world, despite all the suffering.