If we were asked how we would feel if we lost our job, or all our savings, or the person we love, we would say we’ll feel devastated, and not without good reason. But the truth is that we blow it out of proportions when we imagine the aftermath of a traumatic event. We human beings are surprisingly more resilient than we think.
The loss of a loved one is obviously sad—and it would be perverse to suggest otherwise—but very few of us become chronically depressed such as that. We experience distress, but that is short-lived. We all get over it eventually.
Furthermore, we overestimate how awful we’ll feel and how long we’ll feel awful in the face of trauma, but surprisingly, resilience is the most common outcome following a traumatic event. In fact, a significant portion of people claim that their lives were enhanced after trauma. As Seneca wrote, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
That is the reason why able-bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to become able-bodied again because able-bodied people underestimate how happy disabled people are. Similarly, chronically ill patients rate the value of their lives more highly than hypothetical patients who are imagining themselves to be in such states.
This difference is due to a phenomenon called experiential ambiguity. Unlike other animals who respond to stimuli as they are presented in the world, human beings respond to stimuli as they are represented in the mind. Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which we react. Our mind is our world, and this has some interesting consequences.
You see when your brain is free to interpret a stimulus in more than one way, it tends to interpret it the way it wants to, which is to say that your preferences influence your interpretations.
For example, one of the reasons why most of us think of ourselves as talented, friendly, wise, and fair-minded is that these words have ambiguous meanings, and the human mind exploits this for its own gratification.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes:
Researchers asked some volunteers (definers) to write down their definition of talented and then to estimate their talent using that definition as a guide. Next, some other volunteers (non-definers) were given the definitions that the first group had written down and were asked to estimate their own talent using those definitions as a guide. Interestingly, the definers rated themselves as more talented than the non-definers did. Because definers were given the liberty to define the word talented any way they wished, they defined it exactly the way they wished—namely, in terms of some activity at which they just so happened to excel (“I think talent usually refers to exceptional artistic achievement like, for example, this painting I just finished,” or “Talent means an ability you’re born with, such as being much stronger than other people. Shall I put you down now?”). Definers were able to set the standards for talent, and not coincidentally, they were more likely to meet the standards they set.
This is the same reason why some people would say bitter gourd is good and others would say ice-cream is good. The first group measures the goodness of the food (an ambiguous term) by its nutritious value while the other group measures its goodness by the taste. (As a side note, this is why we don’t seem to agree upon anything. Different people have different subjective interpretations to the same objective stimuli.)
Despite a bitter gourd’s bad taste or an ice-cream’s unhealthy content, our brains would automatically exploit the ambiguity of that food’s identity and allow us to think of it in a way that pleases us, for example, a nutritious veggie or a delicious dessert, rather than a way that does not, for example, a bitter veggie or a fattening dessert.
Our experience of the world—how we see it and imagine it—is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion.
If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to do anything real. We play in a spectrum of reality and illusion and that’s what keeps us sane, and keeps things moving.
As Daniel Gilbert writes: “We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.”
Thus, in the face the pain of rejection, loss, misfortune, and failure, a psychological immune system gets triggered which strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it. “It was a crappy interview, but next time I’ll try harder.”
Our mind looks for the best view of things while simultaneously insisting that those views stick reasonably closely to the facts. Therefore, you usually don’t go into chronic depression in the face of misfortune. When reality hits you in the head with a brick, you can muster the courage to come out of it more powerful that before. This is the reason why human beings can face almost all the misfortune in the world and still keep fighting without losing faith. And this is what makes us such fascinating creatures.
Next time you fear something—flunking exams, getting rejected, business loss—remind yourself that this too shall pass.