Heard the one about the Chinese farmer? According to the Taoists, he had a horse that ran away. A neighbor said, “Oh, that’s bad news,” and the farmer replied, “Good news, bad news, who can say?” The horse soon returned with another horse, which many labeled good news. The farmer again withheld judgment and gave the second horse to his son, who broke his leg when the animal threw him off. “That’s bad news,” clucked a sympathetic neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer predictably replied.
Days later, the emperor’s soldiers entered the village to round up able-bodied young men for war. The farmer’s injured son was spared, and the neighbors congratulated his dad upon hearing the “good” news.
You can guess what the farmer said, right? Well, I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of his philosophy, at least when it comes to adversity. I’ve learned that so-called bad news can sometimes lead to good.
Things like being turned down for a job or losing one, getting dumped by a lover or left by a spouse, and experiencing a life threatening illness or injury can sometimes lead us to more good than we ever would have imagined. Asking “What next?” “What can I learn?” or “What can I be grateful for?” in the wake of upsetting events has served me better than asking “Why me?” Positive psychology researchers call this benefit finding.
I tried to remember this two weeks ago, when my husband was in a fender-bender. As I took in the “bad” news over the phone, I silently expressed gratitude that no one was hurt and the car was okay. That in itself was progress for me—reaching for the good in a situation on the spot instead of having a meltdown. As it turns out, we’ll get some money to fix our car, which could use a little bodywork. Good news, in my book.
Four years ago, a different car accident resulted in injuries that allowed me to leave a career that I was no longer enjoying. The same thing happened with a panic attack in 1997. At the time of these events, I was too shaken to envision the positive outcomes that would follow. Both episodes introduced me to some talented healers, the accident led to a financial bonus, and the panic attack sent me on an emotional and psychological healing journey that gave birth to my current career.
The things we often label terrible and tragic can have hidden gifts. Sometimes they force us to grow our courage and commitment and call upon strength that we never knew we had. Sometimes they humble us enough to admit our vulnerability, ask for help, and accept it. Other times they catapult us out of our comfort zone and prompt us to make sorely needed changes that, left up to us, might never have happened.
I’m not saying there’s no room for tantrums or tears when things don’t go as we’d like them to. I’ve had my share of those and consider them healthy reactions to disappointment and loss. But once the anger has cooled and the sadness has lifted, I think it’s important to work with the reality before us rather than waste time and energy lamenting, blaming and living in “coulda, woulda shoulda.”
Evidently, the tendency to make lemonade from lemons is hardwired in us.
Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we humans have a “psychological immune system” that helps us to synthesize happiness even when we don’t get what we want. Gilbert says that our brains can assist us in finding the ultimate good in whatever happens, and that synthetic happiness is as real as the kind that comes when things go our way. His own story illustrates how not getting what we want can be a blessing. When he couldn’t get into the creative writing class that we wanted to take in college, Gilbert ended up finding his passion and acclaim in psychology. Today he’s a Harvard professor and a media star who gives TED talks.
And how did I stumble upon Mr. Gilbert’s work for this essay? While heading home from a visit with my family the other night, I encountered a horrendous seven-mile back up on the only road out of town. Rather than sit and stew, I turned the car around, went back to my parents’ house, ate some ice cream and read a good book. When I got back in the car a few hours later, there was Dan Gilbert on the radio, discussing the good news about bad news. Perfection.
If you have a story to share about the gifts of adversity, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I wish you mostly good news and what my watercolor teacher calls “happy accidents.”
Kim Childs is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, creativity and spiritual development. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or via phone or Skype.