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We’re Not Here to Draw Happy Faces on Suffering

We’re Not Here to Draw Happy Faces on Suffering

by Kathryn Britton, co-author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance

Health promotion is NOT about pretending to feel good Three weeks ago, we posted an article about self-talk, encouraging people to lighten their moods by choosing responses to events in their lives in a spirit of self-compassion and realistic optimism.

One question came back: what do you do when truly horrible things happen in your life? When your child becomes addicted to drugs, or you lose your job, home, and livelihood, or you receive a diagnosis of a terrible disease or … Most of us can dream up a long list of disasters that could happen, and sometimes they do.

What can you say to clients facing major difficulties in order to help them effectively manage their moods without sounding like you are downplaying the true magnitude of their sorrow?

This question is an important one for people applying the science of well-being. While we are all for turning threats into opportunities and focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong, we aren’t here to draw happy faces on top of suffering or in any way to deny that it exists.

My own answer comes from contemplating Victor Frankl, Nick Vujicic, and others that have faced horribly difficult situations with fortitude and courage.

I put it like this: For any given form of suffering, some will face it more effectively than others. How they face it depends on choices they make. Some good strategies I’ve observed over the years:

  • Some strive to see the meaning in their suffering, as Victor Frankl did in the concentration camps. He came up with the equation: Despair = Suffering without meaning.
  • Others try to make the best of what they have, as Nick Vujicic does with his single limb, a foot that he calls his chicken leg that he can use to type, drive, and walk. Nick is compassionate with those who lose their limbs later in life. He never had them, so he never had to mourn them.
  • Yet others look for the beauty in life, the way Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living holocaust survivor at 109, does.

I believe that in good times, people can practice skills that will help them through hard times.

  • They can learn how to calm themselves down physically, so that they can turn their minds to effective problem-solving rather than whirlwinds of doubt, blame, and catastrophizing.
  • They can collect personal heroes, such as mine above, so that they have a sense that suffering can be endured.
  • They can collect a social support system that can help them through hard times.

Never deny the magnitude of the difficulty. But be ready to remind people that positive emotions can still be felt, and they are responses that contribute to health, as we described in an earlier article. Kindness to others can still lift spirits, as described in the Kindness: The Most Reliable Mood Boost Ever! in the SaS book. Self-compassion can still help you find ways to interpret events that lighten the darkness.

If there’s a topic you’d like us to discuss in a future edition of this blog, please email us:


  • Jeremy McCarthy

    A great response and an important distinction. People jump to the conclusion that practicing gratitude, optimism, positivity necessitates the suppression of negative emotional experiences that also may be important, justified and useful. But as you so clearly point out, these strategies are additive, not necessarily replacements, and they can help us to get the most out of the good and the bad.

MJ Shaar – in 20 seconds

MJ is one of the most sought-after experts blending positive psychology and health promotion. She spent over 15 years coaching, teaching, speaking, researching and testing smart health habits. Marie-Josée Shaar received her undergrad at McGill University in Organizational Behavior, followed by a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. She's certified as a Wellness Culture Coach, a Personal Trainer, and a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.

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