Home All We Are Not Here to Draw Happy Faces on Suffering

We Are Not Here to Draw Happy Faces on Suffering

written by Kathryn Britton 11 October 2013
Suffering exists.

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Three weeks ago, I posted an article about self-talk on the Smarts and Stamina blog, encouraging people to lighten their moods by mindfully choosing responses to the 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 or friends 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 positive psychology, 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.

Learn from the Masters

My own answer comes from contemplating people who have suffered, people like Victor Frankl, Nick Vujicic, and others that have faced horribly difficult situations with fortitude, patience, 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. If you think of putting yourself on the high side of the bell curve with respect to handling a particular adversity, here are a few things to learn from survivors.

  • Some strive to see the meaning in their suffering, as Victor Frankl did in a concentration camp. 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 limbs, so he never had to mourn them. It makes sense when he says it, but it’s not my immediate response when I see him to think how relatively lucky he is.
  • Yet others look for the beauty and humor in life, the way Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living holocaust survivor at 109, does.
  • Yet others accept consolation from the people around them. This can be harder to do than it sounds, as I found when my friend died in a car accident (see Sudden Loss: How to Help).
  • Yet others let go of lost possible future selves, honoring dreams that will never materialize, but turning their focus to new futures. The term, lost possible future selves, comes from work by Laura King and colleagues, who state “We defined lost possible future selves as representations of the self in the future, which might have once held the promise of positive affect, but which are no longer a part of a person’s life.”

    “That is why we view the capacity to face one’s lost possible self in a detailed way as a sign of maturity. Such a capacity reveals a person’s willingness to admit to imperfection, to erroneous assumptions, to failed expectations, in short, to humanity.” King & Raspin, p. 609

You Don’t Have to Wait Until Disaster Strikes

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.
  • They can collect portfolios of pictures, cards, books, music, art, stories, and other artifacts that lift their spirits. In her book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson has described hunting and gathering items for positivity portfolios. “I encourage you to view your positivity portfolios as living documents. Let them evolve. Update them.”

Positive Emotions in the Face of Loss

Never deny the magnitude of the difficulty. But be ready to remind people that positive emotions can still be felt, and they are allowed, healthy, and signs of emotional maturity. Kindness to others can still lift spirits, as Marie-Josée Shaar and I described in the Kindness: The Most Reliable Mood Boost Ever! chapter of Smarts and Stamina. Self-compassion, as described by Steve Safigan can still help you find ways to interpret events that lighten the darkness.

But say it with humility. We never know what we’ll be called on to face.


Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown. In chapter 11, A New Toolkit, building positivity portfolios is described in the Hunt and Gather section and using them effectively in the How to Use Your Portfolios section.

King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2007). Whatever happened to “what might have been”? Regret, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist,62, 625-636.

King, L. & Raspin, C. (2004). Lost and Found Possible Selves, Subjective Well-Being, and Ego Development in Divorced Women. Journal of Personality, 72:3, 603-632.

“We have argued that the potentially painful task of considering “what might have been” is an important aspect of maturity. Thus, it makes sense that individuals who are more ego developed (ED) are more likely to admit to thinking about their lost possible selves. In a sense this result may indicate that ED development may serve as a resource that allows a person to consider potentially negative experiences without being overwhelmed with regret.”

King, L. A. (2001b). The hard road to the good life: The happy, mature person. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Special Issue on Positive Psychology, 41, 51–72. Abstract.

Safigan, S. (2010). Self-Kindness: A Healthier Alternative to Self-Esteem? Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.


Suffering exists courtesy of DeeAshley
Accepting consolation courtesy of allspice1
Scrapbook courtesy of martinak15

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Clive Leach 11 October 2013 - 8:18 am

Powerful and well presented article Kathryn. Thanks. Acknowledging the really tough stuff but also believing that we can invest in building the resources to overcome it is so central to our work.

wj 15 October 2013 - 1:03 pm


Just an observation re your comment “calm themselves down physically, so that they can turn their minds to effective problem-solving”

I assume you are talking about meditation here. This is my experience of meditation to a certain extent. But at a meta level I think calming yourself down gives you clarity of mind to think in terms of the serenity prayer ie change what you can and accept what you can’t.


wj 16 October 2013 - 1:46 pm

Oops – should {edited: “have”} added the following to the comment

So you’re not better at problem solving – you are better at knowing which problems to solve.

Kathryn Britton 17 October 2013 - 1:56 pm


I like your replacement wording, though perhaps it could be a bit of both: “So you are better at knowing which problems can be solved and are worth solving — as well as being better at solving the ones you take on.”

You convinced me once upon a time that the first step towards resilience is being able to calm down the physical arousal that goes with anger, fear, and other negative emotions. But I think there are different ways to do that. Some people exercise. Some breathe in particular ways. Some meditate. To make sense of this, I figure that people should figure out their own best ways to calm down so that they know what to do when need arises. Probably it’s a good idea to try out several ways to see what fits best.

Thanks for pushing toward greater clarity here. Thanks also for bringing up the Serenity Prayer.


wj 17 October 2013 - 2:40 pm


Yes your suggestion is probably more accurate.

Breathing is probably something that you can do in the moment when you are stressed (reactive) whereas meditation and exercise are something that are more proactive.

My experience of meditation is that thoughts are less likely to lead to physiological states that require calming down.


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