Why is it that the same situation can bring about learning and growth for one person, while for another it leads to depression?

When I came across Chip Conley’s excellent book “Emotional Equations” I was struck by the simplicity and power of his first equation:

Despair = suffering – meaning.

It gives a practical way to think about events in our work and our life, and how we react to them.

The amount of suffering we experience may be partially within our control.  Perhaps.  We can choose the places we go, the things we do, the people we spend time with.  But much of the life that we experience is difficult if not impossible to determine in advance with any certainty (even if we decided we wanted to!).

On the other hand, applying meaning is definitely something we can do.  And a skill we can get better at.  So we can directly reduce our feelings of despair not by trying to control everything and avoid anything that may cause pain, but by giving some meaning to what happens.

This is a central theme of Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning: The classic tribute to Hope from the Holocaust’.  A psychiatrist from Vienna before the war, he describes his observations and his personal reactions to living through a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.  Similar to Nelson Mandela’s observations in his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Frankl saw through many painful examples that personal suffering was a result of inner decisions people make, and that everything can be taken away from us except our ability to choose our attitude.

If you haven’t read Dr Frankl’s book, give it a go.  It’s an inspiring read.

Anyone not heard the increasingly gloomy stats on depression?  The media often publicises its strengthening hold on us, despite rises in our standard of living.  How can it be that while society’s outward indicators of success are rising, the mental health of many people is suffering?

Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong things.  Focusing on the suffering and trying to reduce it, rather than looking to increase the meaning we derive from life’s challenges.

How clear are you on your life’s purpose?  What do you do on a regular basis to take you towards your goals?  What’s important to you, what are your values?  Having answers to these questions helps us to build meaning across our lives.

When something is tough yet important to you, doesn’t any pain associated with it become less relevant?  Even though it may be just as acute?

My eldest son was a competitive gymnast as a child.  I watched him go through considerable physical pain in his quest to perfect his sport.  Did he cry?  Sometimes.  Often in frustration at not getting it quite right.  Did it cause him despair?  No.  He was clear on why he was going through the physical discomfort. – which was extreme at times as he learned a new skill – and he had his eye on the horizon.  His ‘suffering’ had a reason.  It wasn’t debilitating to him.  He had attached a meaning to it.

And what about childbirth?  Some even go into the experience a second or third time, knowing what they are up for.  Bringing the suffering down a few notches, what about changing a dirty nappy?  Does it make a difference when it is your own child?

When we are clear on why something is important, the suffering has context.  It doesn’t necessarily lessen or disappear, but nor does it lead us into despair.  In some cases, it can spur us on.  When the going is tough and the meaning is eluding us, just knowing that the pain is building resilience might do (assuming that you value personal growth).

Developing meaning is like building a muscle.  First, you need to want to.  Then you need to take action.  Over time, it becomes a habit.

I believe we have been investing our energy in the wrong direction when trying to shield ourselves, our kids and our society from pain.  I’m not advocating removal of sensible safe-guards, but I think it is better to accept that there will be tricky times in life and develop skills and strategies to flourish through adversity.  To build coping strategies.  With kids, it can be in the questions you ask.  Through our questions we can help our children to discover meaning for themselves and thus help them develop much-needed resilience too.

Author: Nicola Deakin