4 Ways That Suffering Makes You a Better Person

Can tough times--including periods of emotional pain, economic hardship and illness or injury--actually benefit us in a number of ways?

Old sports:

Over the weekend, a friend and I talked about a few of the difficult experiences we've gone through. Mostly, I talked about how hard it can be, here in New York, to find sexy men over 25 to date,* to afford organic groceries and to outsmart the wily meter maids. Well ... not really. I talked a bit about trying to work through a particularly bad period of depression. He mentioned a years-long struggle with an undiagnosed physical illness that caused him a lot of physical pain and severely curtailed his ability to do all sorts of activities he enjoys; when he was finally correctly diagnosed, it was an enormous relief. And he made the point that, just as his experience was for him, a little suffering can be very beneficial for most people.

Our conversation got me thinking about how--in many cases--suffering really can do some good. Now, I'm not so glib that I think every single difficult experience has a silver lining; for instance, I really feel for (and worry about) today's soldiers who are coming back from places like Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

But I do think, as Nietzsche might say, that many of us can become stronger and more versatile people after going through some kind of hardship. Or, as the American painter Alice Neel puts it (a bit more wryly): "All experience is great, providing you live through it. If it kills you, you'e gone too far."

Think I'm crazy? Well, I wont' debate that. But before you tell me I'm totally wrong about this suffering thing, allow me to mention the ways in which I think hard times can pay off.

1. Hardship can make us smarter. These days, it's accepted as common knowledge that any unusual life experience--even something as simple as putting yourself up to the task of taking a different route to work in the morning--challenges the brain, helping to keep it healthy, active and nimble (in much the same way exercise helps the body). When we're going through something difficult, we are faced with all sorts of small puzzles to solve--questions like how to find creative ways of saving money, for instance. All the problem-solving we are forced to do in order to get through a tough experience is a great work-out for the brain. And researchers think that even depression may sharpen our mental skills.

2. Hardship can make us more empathetic. Most intelligent, thinking people who have suffered just about anything--whether it's the sudden loss of a job or the death of a loved one to a serious illness--feel more compassion for people who have endured similar experiences. And the ability to empathize comes in handy in all sorts of situations. Being able to put ourselves in another person's shoes makes us better bosses and colleagues; better spouses and lovers; and better friends. It helps us to feel a deeper and more satisfying connection with all sorts of people.

3. Hardship can make us stronger. When we've come through all right on the other end of something very difficult--like passing a very difficult exam that we've spent a lot of time studying for, training for a marathon, making it through a stressful period at work, or depending on our wits to survive some kind of emergency--we often gain a sense of self-confidence. In making it through the adversity, we've not only learned a few survival skills; we have a better understanding of ourself and our limits.

(This great old-school poem called Invictus--the Latin word for "unconquered"--is all about the power one can feel after making it through a particularly tough battle. The poet concludes: "I am the master of my fate;/I am the captain of my soul." Yee-haw!)

4. Hardship can sharpen our emotional perceptiveness. Whenever I'm going through a particularly bad time, I find myself more acutely affected by the beautiful things in the world, including--but not limited to--sunsets, the happy shouts of children in a playground, the tang of an ordinary grapefruit, and all sorts of music (down to the song of a bird outside my window). These things can, paradoxically, fill me with hope even in the midst of despair; a world full of such majesty is a world worth living in, is it not? And experiencing such deep emotions, in difficult times, helps to make life richer in all sorts of ways. It not only deepens the impact we feel when we read a good book or see a good movie, for instance; it also makes our feelings of love--for a partner, a parent, a friend--that much richer. In other words, it helps us to find the meaning in our lives.

Friends, what do you think of all this? Do you think this is cockamamie--that I've just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make a bunch of justifications for experiences that really, for the most part, simply suck? Or do agree that suffering can make us better people?



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* I kid, I kid! One of my favorite readers, for instance--Rob (a.k.a. "R to the K"), you out there today?--is 38 and quite foxy!