One popular perception about happiness is that there’s some benefit in having both ups and downs in your life, so that you have better perspective on the good bits and can enjoy them more. My question in this post is whether that same theory might apply beyond the study of happiness to other areas. Did having a totally crap president like George W. Bush make electing Barack Obama easier? Without a doubt. As short-term as the lessons sometimes are, humans do learn from mistakes and thus mistakes aren’t all bad, because they are one of the quickest ways to improve at whatever you’re doing (as long as those lessons are in fact learned).
But what about bad things that don’t come from any mistake on the part of the person who’s experiencing them? Is there any utility to those situations? I’m thinking about witnessing a car crash or a mother hitting her child. Can any good come of this? I think so, and it follows pretty closely in line with personal mistakes: we learn lessons from others’ mistakes and bad behavior as well. Witnessing an accident frightens us into driving more safely. Witnessing abusive (or just crappy) parenting inspires us to strive for our own parenting ideals more. Or at least we can learn from these bad experiences this way. It’s not quite as reflexive as from our own mistakes (though less obstructed by hubris) but it’s pretty natural.
Finally, there are bigger bad things, like seeing suffering homeless people or reading news about the BP oil spill. How can these possibly be good? It’s harder to see, but one benefit of both these systemic ills is that they can inspire activism, which is a good thing. But really, the whole trick in this exercise is that you have to find the silver lining yourself. It’s always there sooner or later. Encouraging and focusing on the positives rather than on the crappiness of whatever happened is a major aspect of an attitude conducive to happiness.