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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Even S#&t Helps Things Grow

The human mind is equipped with an amazing capacity for growing through and from life’s piles of shit. And we can learn how to do it better.

I hate the smell of manure. It makes me gag.

On Wednesday evenings I drive north up the interstate on my way to soccer. There’s a little valley about half way up that sometimes gets me pressing the limits of acceptable highway speeds. You see, every so often, a farm in this valley lays down copious amounts of manure. On those weeks it’s all I can do to keep myself conscious from holding my breath.

When that smell hits me all I can think about is how awful it is. It wasn’t until recently I stopped to consider, “these cow pies actually come with a benefit.”

Life can sometimes be hard. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes it’s so bad it feels like life is serving us a steaming pile of shit and laughing while saying, “enjoy your dinner!” These moments, in particular, can appear ALL bad. And yet, for many of us, often, we find a way (immediately or eventually) to spot the benefits in our crappy experiences.

Psychologists call this post traumatic growth.

In a nutshell, post traumatic growth is experiencing both a difficult or traumatic life event AND growing psychologically from it. That is, experiencing positive change after a negative experience.

For example, you get cancer. Maybe even terminal cancer. The news hits you like a ton of bricks and you begin experiencing depressive symptoms. Yet, along side these awful feelings, you also find a deepened appreciation for life. Your close relationships become closer, stronger, more meaningful. You notice the budding blooms on your fruit tree more closely and the sounds of the birds in your yard make you smile.

A series of studies performed by psychologist Dr. Mark Seery (HERE, HERE, and HERE) suggest experiencing a moderate amount of adversity in life (eg, opportunities to experience post traumatic growth) correlates with the lowest risk of depression and physical health problem and the highest levels of life satisfaction. In fact, according to his findings, those who experienced the least difficult times in their life had the lowest life satisfaction scores!

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting you go out and get yourself dumped, fired, and riddled with disease. What I am saying is the human mind is equipped with an amazing capacity for growing through and from life’s piles of shit. And we can learn how to do it better.

In this interesting study the researchers encouraged participants to basically think of a time someone had been a real asshole to them. They then had them spend 20 minutes writing about how their lives were better as a result of this person "asshole-ing" them. Afterward, they measured them for things like anger toward the jerk, withholding forgiveness, and a desire to avoid that person. On all measures, the participants feelings improved.

And it turns out this can work in a tenth of the time. In another study, people were once again asked to think about a hurtful transgression against them. Then, they were instructed to spend two minutes imagining that transgression as an opportunity to, “grow, learn, or become stronger.”

This time the participants were hooked up to machines that measure facial muscle activity, a physiological marker of tension. Those who spent the two minutes thinking about how they grew from being treated like crap showed significantly less facial tension – they got happier. And it didn’t stop there. Their cardiovascular profile improved by way of reduced heart rate and blood pressure!

This activity is called benefit spotting and it turns out it actually fires up the part of the brain responsible for positive motivation and active coping.

Now, before you get too bent out of shape thinking I’m espousing some “rainbows and unicorns” mindset, give me a moment. I’m not suggesting we ignore the bad and force ourselves to view life’s traumas as little gifts from heaven. Study after study shows benefit spotting only works if we realistically acknowledge both the bad shit that went down AND the ways in which we grew from it.

So the next time I’m on the verge of puking my way through Manure Valley I’ll be thinking about the food that manure is helping cultivate.

What roses have grown out of your personal dung pile?

- Written by Josh Vaisman

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