Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Happiness and the Way We See Trouble

Ever noticed how one person has all sorts of bad experiences and stays happy, while another person plunges into depression? What’s the difference?

This post explains.

(This is the eighth post in a series on happiness that starts here. We invested seven posts to put in the building blocks of happiness, and the next series of posts builds on this foundation.)

Think back to when you were a child. Early life is enthusiasm and wonder as we take our first steps, speak our first words, and get acquainted with the world around us.

But something happens as we grow up. We stop playing and learning. We pick up negative attitudes. We lose our vigor.

What’s the culprit? Most people believe the answer is life itself. “Growing up is getting real,” people say. “The real world, unlike the kid world, is a tough place that unplugs our enthusiasm, one disappointment at a time.”

I disagree. The problem isn’t life. It’s the way we see life.

Happiness Factor #1: Happy people understand the power of perception.

Imagine two people going through the same troubles, but one person keeps their vitality, joy, and zest, while the other person plunges into depression, cynicism, and despair. Same circumstances, different response. Studies of optimists and pessimists show that both have the same amount of troubles, but their different attitude comes from different ways of seeing those troubles.

Happiness Factor #2: Happy people see their troubles in a different way.

Psychologist Martin Seligman writes,

I have been studying [optimists and pessimists] for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time and will undermine everything they do….The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case.[i]

Optimists see troubles as temporary and isolated, so they see more opportunity for future good than than pessimists who see troubles as permanent and global. The optimist and the pessimist both experience the hard knocks. But they see the hard knocks in different ways.

Here’s what we can do.

To be more optimistic in the face of trouble, I suggest we tell ourselves:

  • This won’t last. Eventually, we’ll get through it.
  • This is only one aspect of my life. There are many other good things to appreciate.

Remember, happiness comes from perception, not just the events themselves. It’s a “pattern of positive emotion that comes from seeing good things happen at a good pace.” As we’ve been saying time and time again, our perception is just as important if not more important to our happiness than the events we perceive.


[i] Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), p. 4.

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