German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Turns out he’s right--at least up to a point.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have concluded that the frequency of blows one experiences in life is at least as important as personality and genes when it comes to predicting mental toughness.
Negative events force “people to learn about their own capabilities, about their support networks—to learn who their real friends are,” says UC Irvine psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver, one of the authors of a study that appeared in the December 2010 issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “That kind of learning…is extremely valuable for subsequent coping.”
Of the 2,000 adults Cohen and her colleagues followed for the study, those individuals who had experienced anywhere from two to six negative events, including divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job, foreclosure, and a serious illness, scored highest in terms of both resilience and satisfaction with their lives. In contrast, those who had experienced either a dozen negative events or none at all reported being less satisfied and less able to bounce back after each blow.
Benedict Carey, reporting on the study in The NY Times (“On Road to Recovery, Past Adversity Provides a Map”), concludes that mental toughness is like physical strength: “It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked.”
This is not to suggest that in the wake of a loss, mentally tough individuals suffer any less than others do. Cohen and her colleagues are simply arguing that such events can have an upside.