How Adversity Can Change Our Thinking for the Better


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

How exactly is it possible that experiencing adverse life events change our thinking for the better? Or, in other words, what are the benefits of adversity? One explanation is that people who have survived negative experiences are also better able to recognize, appreciate, and take pleasure in the small joys and simple pleasures of life.

Close up of a woman face enjoying the sunset
Sometimes adversity can make people appreciate life and enjoy pleasurable experiences more than others. (Image: Simona Pilolla 2/Shutterstock)

Overcoming Hard Times

Researchers in one study first asked people to rate how much they tended to savor positive experiences. Savoring is a type of emotion regulation in which people prolong and enhance positive emotional experiences.

They then asked people how many adverse events they had experienced, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or a severe illness or injury. People who were still in the midst of struggling with a difficult event reported a lower ability to savor positive events. But those who had experienced a larger number of adverse events in the past reported higher levels of savoring. This study tells us that experiencing and overcoming negative life experiences in the past increases our ability to enjoy pleasurable experiences.

Adversity Can Raise Empathy

Here’s another benefit of experiencing some adversity: This experience seems to increase our ability to empathize with and connect with others, which feels good. You might remember the iconic photograph of a man wearing a cowboy hat pushing a severely injured young man in a wheelchair following the Boston Marathon bombing. The man wearing the cowboy hat—Carlos Arredondo—was watching the runners when he heard a loud explosion. Although he had no idea whether additional explosions would occur, he rushed immediately to help.

A couple holding hands on a table expressing love, caring, and empathy
People who experience hard times become more empathetic toward others’ problems. (Image: Fizkes/Shutterstock)

What prompted his immediate and potentially life-risking action? His personal experience with adversity almost certainly played a role. Carlos’s older son, a marine, died in 2004 in Iraq. His younger son, who developed severe depression following the death of his older brother, died by suicide in 2011. These two losses may have increased Carlos’s willingness to step up and help the young man who was so seriously injured in the explosion.

Keep in mind, however, that recovering from trauma takes time. Immediately after Carlos learned that the first of his two sons had died, he was severely depressed and spent some time receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment for his grief.

His ability to show tremendous courage and empathy during the Boston Marathon bombing came only nine years after the first son’s death and two years after the second son’s death, when he had come to terms with his loss. In other words, post-traumatic growth takes time.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Increasing the Resilience

Perhaps, most importantly, research points to the benefits of some adversity in increasing resilience, meaning the ability to respond to negative experiences in an adaptive and productive way.

For example, in one study researchers examined the effects of a 10-day sailing trip in New Zealand on resilience in teenagers. The researchers measured levels of resilience in students during the trip and again five months later, and then compared their resilience to that of other college students who did not participate in such a trip. Can you predict what they found? Students who participated in this 10-day trip had higher levels of resilience immediately at its conclusion, but also over time, five months later.

There were no initial differences in resilience between students who did and did not go on the trip, so it’s not just that students who were already higher in resilience chose to go. Instead, experiencing tough conditions, learning how to sail, coping with seasickness, getting along with a group of strangers living in crowded conditions, and so on, helped students develop the skills needed to cope with other challenges and probably confidence in their ability to manage future stressors. And that experience in turn led to higher levels of resilience, which probably paid off when students faced other challenges later on.


Now, the stress of adventure travel is obviously not entirely comparable to the serious stressors we face in daily life. Researchers are highly limited (for practical and ethical purposes) in their ability to conduct the type of controlled studies using random assignment that helps address issues of correlation versus causation. But longitudinal studies of more serious adversity provide additional evidence for the unexpected benefits of such experiences.

A 2017 study compared neurotic personality traits worldwide through data collected online from more than 7 million people. Neurotic refers to a personality that is anxious, fearful, and with a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of most situations. The researchers pulled out data specifically from those in Germany and compared rates of neuroticism for those living in 89 different German cities.

Neurotic human figure locked inside a glass separating it from the world around
Experiencing and overcoming traumatic events make people experience less neuroticism. (Image: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock)

The researchers initially predicted that people living in cities that had experienced the greatest destruction during World War II bombings would show higher rates of neuroticism and psychological problems. After all, experiencing this sort of intense, life-or-death trauma could well have a lasting effect on psychological well-being, which in turn could be passed on to subsequent generations.

Mental Strength

But they were wrong. Instead, people living in cities that had undergone more substantial bombing had lower rates of neuroticism than those living in less affected cities. In fact, people living in these regions seem to cope better with other stressors. For example, economic downturns were associated with higher rates of clinical depression in other parts of Germany, but not in those where major wartime destruction occurred. 

Although the specific mechanisms leading to this greater resilience across three generations are not known, the researchers posit that experiencing the major destruction of cities may have led to prolonged changes, such as leading people in the city to pull together as a community, which in turn helped them buffer subsequent negative events.

Common Questions about How Adversity Can Change Our Thinking for the Better

Q: What are the benefits of adversity?

One benefit of adversity is that people become more grateful for even the small things they have. Other benefits researchers link with overcoming adversity are experiencing fewer psychological problems, becoming more empathetic, and building more resilience.

Q: How can adversity help people enjoy pleasurable experiences?

People who went through difficult events in the past tend to savor positive experiences more than others. They become more grateful and appreciate even the smallest and simplest pleasures of life.

Q: How does adversity increase resilience?

Experiencing adverse situations helps people develop the skills and confidence they need to manage stressors so they can cope effectively with future challenges. Thus it also increases resilience, so people become more ready to face new hard times and challenges later on.

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