The Funny Thing About Adversity

The Funny Thing Here is a brief excerpt from an article by David DeSteno for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo Credit: Gérard DuBois

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Does adversity harden hearts or warm them? Does experiencing deprivation, disaster or illness make a person more — or less — sympathetic to the travails of others?You’ve probably encountered examples of each: survivors of hard knocks who lend a compassionate ear to beleaguered souls, and those who offer only a disdainful “suck it up.” As a result, it may seem that adversity’s effect on kindness is unpredictable.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying morality over the past 20 years, it’s that compassion isn’t random. There are always reasons for its ebb and flow. So recently, my graduate student Daniel Lim and I set out to discover adversity’s logic.

Our intuition was that surviving hardships in life would lead people to become more generous, kind and supportive. After all, if you’ve lived through dire straits, you’re all too familiar with the pain and challenges involved. You can more readily adopt the perspective of someone in distress — you can feel his pain — and thus are more likely to lend a hand.

Scientific studies, however, typically favor the more pessimistic view. Adversity is associated with many types of negative psychological outcomes: anxiety, depression and, most notably, blunted emotional responding. It has also been tied to the beliefs that the world is not benevolent and that life is not meaningful. This seems like a recipe for a lack of kindness.

And yet, despite what such studies imply, there are many cases in which adversity undeniably elicits compassion. Consider the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, or of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan, in which individuals, even in the midst of their own suffering, helped one another in exceptionally sympathetic ways. Given that adversity is linked with anxiety and depression, why does compassion ever emerge from it?

The reason, we suspect, is that compassion isn’t as purely selfless as it might seem. While it might appear to be a response to the suffering of others, it is also a strategy for regaining your own footing — for resilience in the face of trauma. After all, having strong social relationships is one of the best predictors of psychological well-being in the long run, and so anything that enhances your bonds with others — like expressing compassion for them — makes you more resilient.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More, published by Hudson Street Press/Penguin Random House (2014).

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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