03/19/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Thinking About the Uses of Adversity

It's been heartbreaking to watch the news out of Japan in the last week. Like you, I found myself shifting between feelings of horror, terror and compassion. I was at once deeply curious to know more and eager to turn it off and think about other things.

But something else has drifted out of the region along with the horrific headlines: a sense that Japanese culture may just change in response to this tragic series of events.

For instance, in The New York Times, Hiraki Azuma, a professor at Waseda University, wrote that he believes the Japanese will respond to this catastrophe by building a new, re-energized society, one in recovery not just from this "calamity" but from the "prolonged stagnation and despair of the last two decades."

That piece and others like it made me think of Jonathan Haidt's book, "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom." Haidt writes that adversity can actually make us stronger: "People need adversity, setback and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment and personal development." In fact, he says, researchers have begun to move beyond studying how human beings cope with adversity to focus on the benefits of severe stress -- sometimes called "post-traumatic growth."

How does this work? In rising to the challenge, we reveal our hidden capabilities. This, in turn, challenges our self concept: We realize that we are much stronger than we once thought. Second, trauma opens people's hearts and minds to one another, and relationships are strengthened as a result. Third, difficulties changes our priorities and philosophies.

No one chooses to be struck by a natural disaster, and we would never wish it upon another. But when things do happen, might we -- both those in the line of fire, and those of us who are (for now) simply observers -- use them to become stronger?


Julia Moulden is an author, speaker and columnist.

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