Setbacks can make us stronger

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Karen was actually relieved when she was ask to resign from her nurse manager position. She was burned out and she knew it. Her assumption that a good life awaits if a person works extraordinarily hard had proven to be flawed.

Karen was shaken to her core when she realized that the rules she’d been living by regarding how to achieve success and security were questionable. She found herself unsure of what she should do, who she could trust, or whether she’ll find a job where she could be secure in the future.

But setbacks are actually a mixed blessing. Failure hurts when it’s occurring, but it can fuel our desire to learn and grow so we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Failure focuses our attention because it produces powerful reactions in our brain. To preclude further setbacks, failure forces us to attend to the negative feedback that had been easy to ignore when we were living under the illusion that our life would perpetually progress in a positive direction.

Many people who accomplish great outcomes in their lives credit their previous failures as the primary driver that pushed them to succeed. When J.K. Rowling gave the commencement speech to Harvard graduates she recounted how the challenges in her life had helped her write the Harry Potter stories. She recounted how disapproving parents, a devastating divorce, virtual poverty, and repeated rejections gave her insight into what it takes to overcome loneliness and low expectations. “Failure,” she told the audience, “stripped away everything inessential. It taught me things about myself I could have learned in no other way.”

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies “post traumatic growth” – exploring how certain individuals find adversity and setbacks can be essential elements for ultimately attaining an even higher level of success and satisfaction. His studies show that failure experiences provide important information that we need to have in order to form realistic expectations of ourselves and our world. Struggling through setbacks teaches us what to avoid in the future as well as the strengths we possess for overcoming obstacles.

When we learn that we can survive severe stress we’re more resilient when new problems present themselves, which prevents us from plunging too deeply into despair. And because we discover that storms follow sunshine, we learn not to take our successes too seriously either. Realizing the importance of building resiliency resources in the form of supportive relationships provides counterbalance to the lure of seeking happiness by buying, eating, drinking or drugging.

Achievement and the associated advertisement of success through displaying material possessions is sometimes highly valued in American life. However this one dimensional approach to happiness has proven to be disastrous for many people. For one thing acquiring material goods doesn’t make us happy for very long. For another, when we need help there’s not likely going to be enough support.

Positive psychology research reveals that enduring happiness can be achieved by embracing three less tangible values – practicing spirituality, providing community service, and making a meaningful difference by improving other people’s lives.

Another effective way to counterbalance the inevitable challenges you’ll face is to make your life multidimensional. Then you won’t see a setback in one area as causing your life to be a complete failure because your happiness will be derived from a diversified emotional portfolio. So if your level of achievement suffers a loss because you’ve lost your job, you still can count on finding joy in your involvement with the people in your social circle, meaning and purpose in your spiritual practices, and proper perspective from helping others less fortunate than yourself.

People who engage in this multidimensional approach to life suffer far less than those who dwell on their problems. They engage in activities that get them out of their own head. Ruminating, on the other hand, causes people to spiral down into being so self-involved that it becomes difficult to break free of anxious feelings.

What differentiates those who are resilient from the ruminators? People who are resilient have learned how to handle setbacks. They control their negative reactions by recalibrating their thinking to take into account the new lessons that failure teaches them. They see failing as a phase that must be mastered before succeeding is possible.

Karen, for example, went on to become a successful nurse manager because she learned that coming to work having rejuvenated her energy enabled her to accomplish more than working long hours. During her job search, she rediscovered the value of doing volunteer work with her church group. Helping the homeless rekindled her compassionate spirit, a quality she was determined to retain when she went back to work.


Dr. Tom Muha is the Director of The PROPEL Institute. As the science of optimal human functioning has emerged, Dr. Muha has become a leading practitioner of Positive Psychology. He has been at the forefront in the study of how people involved in healthcare systems can achieve the highest levels of success and satisfaction.

By combining the research he conducts at a major academic medical center with studies of other extraordinarily high functioning individuals and organizations, Dr. Muha has developed the PROPEL Principles. This approach teaches people to apply six Positive Psychology principles – Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy, and Legacy – in order to overcome challenges and achieve remarkable results. 

Contact: drtommuha@PROPELinstitute.com