How Life's Problems Can Lead To Personal Growth (& Even Happiness)
BY KIM GILES Most of us think what we want in life is peace and security, the elimination of all problems, pains or worries. If we could just get rid of the problems, pains and worries then we would be happy. Because of this belief we are constantly trying to solve the problems, eliminate the pains and head off the worries. In the process of doing those three things, we learn, stretch and grow. Our greatest accomplishments and most important growth happens because of the problems we are trying to eliminate. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and writer, said, “I believe that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experiences and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.” In the book Moral Knowledge it reads, “Some degree of discontent is necessary to encourage us to engage in the activities of self-realization through which we flourish” I want you to understand this because life is not about being content and secure. You cannot grow there. You would not discover who you are. Life is about growth and growth only happens through discontent and problems. You will find challenges because that is the nature of life, but you can feel more content in your times of discontent if you see them accurately. If you feel bothered, unhappy or stressed by a situation, these feelings are telling you that it’s time to grow. It is time for some stretching, learning or changing. Pain is a signal that something needs to change. If you find the same type of problems wherever you go or you keep suffering with discontent over the same types of issues again and again, there are a couple of reasons this may be happening:
- This is just the nature of the classroom you signed up for. I believe you had a chance to choose some of your classes before you came here and built into that choice was the question, “How much do you want to learn?” You can take the AP classes or the easy A’s. Which might you have chosen? You may be a soul who signed up for the hard classes here in life, because you really wanted to learn a lot.
- There may be a specific tendency in you that you are meant to overcome, so this lesson is repeating over and over until you see it and work on it. Whenever you have someone mistreating you (or whose behavior bothers you), step back from the situation and ask yourself, “What fear or pain is this mistreatment bringing out in me? Is this fear or pain something I had before this? Is this person bringing this tendency out in me so I can see it and work on overcoming it? Could this person be serving as a teacher in my journey to help me overcome this tendency?"
- The universe may be pushing you towards an achievement or discovery. If you look at your past suffering you will see knowledge you gained during those times (sometimes it is hard to see while still in the middle of the challenge). You might have learned things about the human condition, gained empathy for other people, or discovered techniques to survive which may help others. In your current situation you can ask yourself “ Is there a skill or knowledge I could gain that can only be gained through this experience? What is the hidden gift for me (in surviving this)?” If you can’t see it yet, just trust it is there and you will see it eventually.
It is often from discontent, feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure or even a bout with depression that the seeds of great wisdom and growth are sown. Negative emotions or experiences are a good sign that school is in session and you are headed towards some important learning. Change is coming and you are about to become a wiser, stronger, better or more loving you. You can try to avoid all pains and challenges, but you will find two problems with this. First, it is impossible and second, you will get bored pretty fast. The truth is that we are hard-wired to want challenges in life and to some extent we even seek them out. This is why we willingly participate in sports, push ourselves to run marathons, seek out games of chance and challenge, play with puzzles, mind twisters and video games (the more challenging the better). At a core level we like discontent, challenge and difficulty. My grandfather is in his 90’s, and he still reads books to keep learning, pushes himself to run and spends time on difficult suduko or other puzzles. Human beings are bored without challenges. Thomas Edison said, “Restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.” Really successful people are never content for long. As soon as they find themselves content they look for another challenge. Some of you may attract challenging situations into your lives because you really subconsciously desire progress. Maybe you have challenges wherever you work because you are subconsciously desiring growth. Could this be you? Maybe you don’t want peace as much as you want improvement? Buddha said life is suffering and we suffer because we are discontent with "what is." He encouraged men to stop craving and resisting "what is" and become equanimous with life (this means with equal emotion towards the bad and the good). He encouraged us to understand the real nature of life and embrace periods of discontent with the same emotion that we do periods of peace because they are both here to serve us and they will both pass because no state is permanent. To some this may sound like being content no matter what you get, but it’s more than that. It’s understanding discontent and content are both there to serve you. You must greet all experiences with gratitude and curiosity for the positive they will bring. What I am suggesting is that you adopt a more positive attitude towards your pains, problems and worries. I realize this is not easy to do, but it is a worthy goal. When you see the classroom of life accurately, you will see that the universe is conspiring to serve you, educate you and bless you, and every experience is facilitating something positive in your life at some level. I am battling chronic pain right now that isn't particularly fun, but it really is easier to handle when I focus on what this experience is teaching me and work to learn something from it I can use to serve others. I have an amazing friend who is battling Parkinson's disease with an amazingly happy attitude because he sees it as a grand opponent to battle and win. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal...it's a by-product of a life well lived.” Real happiness does not come through peace, security or easy living. It comes as a by-product of service, love, achievement, growth and other virtuous activities. We are happy when we are doing things, accomplishing things, growing, learning, creating, building and living. Yet all these activities are wrought with challenges to overcome and obstacles to navigate. So, I think we could accurately say - happiness comes from problems, pains and worries. Do you follow my logic? You think that you are seeking contentment, peace, freedom from danger, risk, anxiety and doubt. You think that you want a state of tranquillity all the time, but seeking this may actually push happiness away. Happiness comes from embracing the whole journey, especially the challenges, because you understand they are all part of the achievement. You will be happy when you focus on growing, becoming, giving and loving God, life, yourself and other people. You will be happy when you see the universe as a wise teacher and trust that every experience is here to serve you. You will experience the whole thing in a more positive way and suffer less. You will be happier at work if you step back from the problems and focus on what you can learn from them and turn them into achievements. How could this experience make you better, stronger or more loving? If you can get more content with your discontent, you will find joy wherever you are. You can do this. Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book “Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness” and a coach and speaker.