Tal Ben-Shahar is a resilience expert who taught Harvard University’s super popular course on positive psychology, and is the author of, among other books, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. He also offers a year-long course on positive psychology at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. The class is mostly online, and includes two five-day retreats at the super-relaxing Kripalu Center. It's designed for therapists, coaches, consultants, doctors, parents—or anyone wanting to bring the ever-growing research on happiness into their lives.
Here are some of Ben-Shahar's suggestions for building resilience in divorce.
Wendy Paris: What is resilience, exactly?
Tal Ben-Shahar: It's the ability to bounce back after difficulty, to get up after you fall down. To quote psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden, resilience is ‘our psychological immune system.’ A strong immune system doesn’t mean we don’t get sick, but just that we get sick less often and recover more promptly. Being resilient doesn’t mean we don’t go through difficulties and hardships. We do, but we go through them more quickly and bounce back faster.
WP: Can you give us some ways to build resilience in divorce?
1. Physical exercise.
We know that enhancing our physical toughness actually contributes to our mental toughness. People who exercise regularly are actually more emotionally resilient. Many people going through a hardship tend to stay inside, but that makes things worse. It’s important to get out and for a walk. Go to the gym. Go dancing. It doesn’t take a lot. Even though it’s the last thing you want to do, fake it ’til you become it.
2. Having a sense of meaning and purpose.
It goes to a sentence that Nietzsche wrote, "When you have a 'what for?' every 'how?' becomes possible." When you have a strong sense of purpose, it helps you get up after difficulty and overcome it because you have a "what for?" Some people find meaning in some grand purpose, "I’m going to help the homeless!" or, "I'm going to volunteer in this political campaign!" But the grand purpose is not the only type of purpose out there. You can find meaning and purpose in almost everything you do, by actively looking for it. Switch your focus to it. As a parent, I can see it as a job, or as an opportunity to spend time with people I care about. We can chose to focus on one aspect or the other, and that choice can make a big difference. (A great book to read about connecting with the meaning in your life is The Path to Purpose by William Damon.)
3. A supportive social environment.
Someone to talk to, and to “hold” you, psychologically speaking, really helps. Someone you feel is for you, there to catch you. This could be a partner, a teacher, parents, a therapist; this is one of the pathways through which therapy helps. What counts is quality rather than quantity, someone you can trust and open up to. You want real relationships, not virtual ones. It can be by phone, but a thousand friends on Facebook are no substitute for that one BFF.
4. Helping others.
Contributing to others, volunteering, giving—these are all antecedents of resilience. We see this in populations that are susceptible to difficulties and problems—at-risk populations—when you turn around the helping equation. If, instead of helping them, you get them to go out and help others, that changes their perception from being helpless to helpful, and from hopeless to hopeful. Learned helplessness is the foundation of depression. From learned helplessness you turn to learned helpfulness.
5. Going through hardship.
Resilience is like a muscle. You cannot strengthen a muscle without having it struggle. You cultivate resilience, your psychological muscle, by encountering resistance—a difficulty in life such as divorce, death of a loved one, being laid off. After the initial difficulty, it may get a lot better than it was before. You experience growth, development, and higher levels of resilience. You become stronger. You think, "I’ve been through this. I can go through anything."
WP: The idea that a little difficulty can build strength might make parents going through divorce less worried about their kids.
TBS: Yes. As parents, we need to make sure we’re stretching our children, allowing them to deal with their challenges, as much as they can take. One of the biggest problems with today’s education in the well-to-do areas is that things are becoming too easy, there's a lack of challenge for kids.
WP: But how much adversity is too much?
TBS: The amount we can each take is different for everyone. Many people think, "I’ve gone through divorce; I’m going to be depressed for the next 20 years." But it’s actually a fork in the road. We have a lot more choice than we think about whether we enter an upward or downward spiral. One way to enhance the likelihood we grow is to realize this. And those other elements I mentioned can help us withstand higher levels of pressure and difficulty, and get stronger.
(If we’ve experience depression before, we’re more susceptible to experiencing it again. In The Mindful Way Through Depression, by Mark Williams, he talks about how we can reduce the likelihood of depression if we add a mindfulness practice.)
WP: Thank you so much for all this. I think this is tremendously useful and encouraging. I would love to take your course!
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.