Living Happily In Spite of Bad Things

“Looking back, we see with great clarity, and what once appeared as difficulties now reveal themselves as blessings.”~Dan Millman

I recently had a reader write to me that she often didn’t try things because she feared something bad would happen. Though she didn’t say this, I suspect she’s had some bad things happen in her life.

By the time you reach your 40’s and 50’s, most of us have had several bad things happen. Sometimes children and young people have really bad things happen in their young lives.

They lose a parent. They are abused. They get very sick. They have a disability.

When something really bad happens at a young age or when you have a series of difficult events, you start to believe you’ve been chosen as the lifetime recipient of Crappy Existence Award. You constantly feel like you’re waiting for the next axe to fall.

When you’re a child, you don’t have much control over bad things happening or how to handle them. If you have good and loving parents, they help you navigate through it with as little pain as possible.

But if your parents are the cause of the bad things or if they aren’t equipped to help you, the imprint of pain and fear can stick with you through adulthood, even when things are going well for you.

Like most of you reading this, I’ve had my share of bad things happen in life — many of them in my childhood and youth. Like my younger reader, I spent a good part of my young adult life trying to dodge the “bad thing” bullet.

I thought if I could arrange my life just so, carefully planning what I did, who I was with, what I ate, and how I responded. It felt like tiptoeing through a minefield, and I was sure one misstep would cause an explosion.

In retrospect, four things have occurred to me related to bad things:

1. I’ve had far more good things happen in my life than bad. The bad ones just tend to grab your attention more.

2. Of all of the bad things that have happened, the worst by far is living in fear of bad things happening. Living in fear is the most debilitating, energy-draining, and painful existence of all. It’s like the steady drip, drip, drip of water torture.

3. I have always recovered from whatever the bad thing has been. Nothing has ruined my life or made it impossible for me to be joyful given time.

4. There is no rhyme or reason to how, why, and when bad things happen, but in general they happen less frequently than we fear they will.

The unpredictability of bad things is enough to make you crazy — like the rat in the cage who never knows when the electric shock will zap him.

He dies quickly from the stress. Fortunately, that unpredictability for humans is tempered by my other three revelations: there is more good than bad in life; the bad is not as bad as fearing the bad; and we can recover and live happily in spite of the bad.

If you accept that my four premises are true, here are some thoughts on living happily in spite of bad things:

  • Our experience of life usually has more to do with what we focus our attention on than it does with events. One bad thing might happen, but 20 good things are all around you. If you only see the one bad thing, then life is bad. Consciously switch your focus and look high and low for the good things.
  • In general, trying to avoid bad things has a negative impact on your happiness. You can’t predict most life events, so trying to control your life and those around you only breeds fear, anxiety, and unhappiness. Instead, recognize and acknowledge that mostly good things happen to you. Put your time and energy into enjoying those moments.
  • There are some practical things you can do to prevent trouble and unhappiness in life. Take care of your health, wear a seat belt, don’t smoke, manage your anger, etc. Manage what you can manage to minimize the possibility of certain bad things.
  • When you are in the midst of a bad thing, you will experience pain and difficulty, but it won’t kill you. In fact, I’ve learned that many great things come from bad times. You learn who your friends are. You discover your own resilience. You become more empathetic. You take a new direction. Bad things are often the precursor to positive change and personal growth.
  • If you release your clutch on living a problem free life, you can enjoy a true sense of freedom and peace. You allow life to come at you with all it has to offer, good, bad and ugly. You gratefully accept and embrace all of it, because it’s that balance of positive and negative that deepens our experience of the world.
  • The longer you live, the more bad things you will have under your belt. That might seem frightening, but the law of averages requires it to be so. However, with age and experience, you become more capable of facing bad things . You realize they are bumps in the road, not a prison sentence.
  • Knowing that life is a mix of good and bad, spend time figuring out what you enjoy, what is meaningful, and how you’d like to spend most of your time. Then do those things. Do them now. Find any way, by hook or crook, to design your life in a way that allows you to savor the best bits right now. Don’t look back with regret.

If you are living in fear and anxiety that bad things might happen to you, I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the fear disappear. I know it is scary.

Try to visualize this:  fall backward and let the universe catch you. Release your grip and tumble into the unknown. Relax into the peace of falling. The landing may be softer than you think.

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50 thoughts on “Living Happily In Spite of Bad Things”

  1. Good points, Barrie. I particularly like your line, “fall backward and let the universe catch you.” I took me some time to realize I just need to let go. Things do tend to work themselves out. I learned I can’t control other people and make things the way I want them to be. When bad things happened to me 5 years ago, I found it to be an incredible time for change and growth.

    • Hi Cathy,
      It is hard to let go. It feels really scary to just trust that things will work out. But it is exhausting trying to “manage” life. And things still happen to us regardless of our attempts at control. Better to just accept it all and extract the good from everything! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Barrie. Brilliant. I’m with Cathy in finding that “… fall backward and let the universe catch you” resonates. Release, suspension of fear, and trust are good things. But is sudden complete release and falling into the unknown for everyone? I’m wondering whether, for some people, a few preliminaries to take the edge off? Like meditation to slow down mental overdrive, relaxation of the body, deep breathing. When I’m anxious, my shoulders become stiff objects magnetically attracted to my ears, and my breathing becomes so shallow that I become light-headed with oxygen deprivation. Addressing these two things, alone, reduces my tension and opens doors and windows into the light, possibility, clearer thinking, and optimism. But I agree with everything you said. From where we may stand right now, radical change may be the most effective remedy. But perhaps thinking that we can get there in one or two or three steps may create expectations that, if dashed, may set us back.

    • Thank you for your very wise comments Nancy. I think it is a process for most of us. Sometimes a dramatic life event will cause that sudden release of control. But for me, it was a process over years of slowly realizing how much time I was wasting in fear. With enough experience, you learn that you can survive just about anything and still thrive. I appreciate your thoughtful insights. 🙂

    • But how does one achieve all that is proposed, desired, dreamt, achieve ones goals, when one is deceived, lied to and, in modern parlance, shafted by another? What should one do about that? Is it acceptable to lie back and die or should one seek redress? If one is to seek redress how should this be achieved without others suggesting that one is living on another planet, barking mad or a weirdo who should be ‘ taken ‘ . ? I think others might contemplate what we all know as tension. That is the problem along with – what an earth does all this mean? It seems to me that some people are incapable of living a relaxed life, tension free. Presumably they are so full of angst from birth or pre birth that it will never leave them. Sad. How can we help?

    • Hi Jim,
      You’ve asked a lot of big and important questions. If someone is shafted by another, it’s time to let that other person go. I never think retribution is a positive goal to pursue, but practical justice is. If someone stole from you or did something else illegal, then use the court of law to handle retribution. Sometimes, people do crappy things and get away with it. As hard as it is to forgive, sometimes you just have to for your own peace of mind. But that doesn’t mean you don’t create boundaries for yourself in dealing with anyone. For the most part, I believe happiness and a relaxed life is a product of the choices we make and a decision to focus our minds on good rather than dwelling on the bad. If one is constantly anxious and sad, that is probably the sign of a depression that should be treated by a mental health professional. A combination of positive thought and action, a good diet, exercise, proper rest, and therapy for those who need it can help anyone feel markedly better about themselves and their lives. I’d suggest you read a book called The How of Happiness. It has some great information about how to achieve this balance.

    • I think your response has drifted off the point. The final question was how can we help them? I have no idea where the word retribution crept in. Not on my agenda but perhaps on others. I never mentioned material theft either. Previous writers I think were not talking about material things and nor was I. State of mind. What of the theft of one’s personal fundamental right to fearless living. But as you mentioned it, what do you say should be done about the bad people in life? If we all laid down and died in 1939 and let those people inherit the earth where would all the good people now be? Should we not challenge the bad members of our society without simply relying upon folks in serge blue to do it all for us? Is the naughty school child to be allowed to dominate fellow pupils and teachers alike? If someone acts really badly should they not be held to account? Asked for explanations of their conduct and not be allowed to hide behind their own inadequacies? Forgiveness is not the issue. I think we can all do better in this. I don’t think you mean to say what you appear to be saying – that one’s ‘ boundaries ‘ simply mean you put up with ‘ crap ‘ and ‘ stew in it ‘ and let the dishers have their way. Pasifism gone mad? I do entirely agree about enjoyment of the good and personally I happen to be both an optimist and a very positive person so that I am absolutely very able to lead a happy and fulfilled life. I expect we would find that those here who admit to sadness, depression, tension would probably acknowledge that they have and are seeking help but that they struggle to maintain their goals and reach an equilibrium. Their fear perhaps eats the key. Thanks for the reading suggestion. I am also a sceptic which I think causes me to prefer to spend my time in the actualité of being happy rather thatn reading about it. Rather like in vino verité.

  3. Barrie,
    Your paragraph on ‘When you’re in the midst of bad things… is so true. I have lived long enough to experience many ups and downs. I always look back and relish what I’ve learned from those times. It’s hard to believe anything good is going to come while you’re going through it, but in retrospect it usually does.

    If you can stop and remember what you gained from your last difficulty it helps you get through the tough times quicker, I think. I’m always looking for the silver lining.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Hi Barbara,
      You are doing yourself a great service by maintaining that attitude. I’m sure you are a role model for your family and friends. There is always something to be learned and gained from adversity.

  4. There was a time in my life when a number of bad things were happening to me. Friends literally said to me, “don’t worry, it can’t get any worse.” But it could, and it did. It wasn’t a pleasant time in my life, but it was a valuable learning period for me. Throughout that time I reminded myself that regardless of how bad things got, as long as I acted with integrity and honesty, I could hold my head high. As you say, you can’t prevent bad things from happening in your life, but you can influence your response to those bad things.

    • Jason, during times like those, it feels like you’ve been singled out for bad stuff, doesn’t it? Maintaining your integrity and honesty during those times is no small feat. But it’s amazing how integrity will sustain you during tough times. No one can take that from you. I hope life is better for you now. I’m sure you appreciate the good times all the more!

  5. I grew up with a Dad warning me consistently about all the bad things that could happen. He has been stressed out all his life, I call him miracle Dad, because he’s still well at the age of 83! But a happy man he is not. Needless to say, fear runs high in me too and I’m still in the process of finding safety and trust… in a higher power, life itself which I believe at its core is love and light or God…, or as you say ” let the universe catch me”, that is a lovely vision!

    • Hi Maya,
      I am so sorry for your dad. How awful to live life in such a state. It’s hard to accept that “father doesn’t always know best.” I’m sure his attitude toward life has impacted you, but it doesn’t have to forever. You can “retrain” yourself to live fearlessly. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” is so true. The feeling of fear is always far worse than whatever it is we are fearing. Nancy, in the comment above, makes some good suggestions about dealing with fear on a daily basis. Breathing and meditation are wonderful for learning to let go.

  6. Thank you Barrie… a great article. You are so right about the need for switching our focus to all the good things happening in life. BTW the last three lines read like a poem, really liked them.

  7. Really a good article. I agree with you on this point: One bad thing might happen, but 20 good things are all around you. If you only see the one bad thing, then life is bad. Consciously switch your focus and look high and low for the good things.Courage, patience,positive attitude and presence of mind change the dark ,black night to a beautiful pleasing morning for a new beginning.

    • From “the dark, black night to a beautiful pleasing morning for a new beginning” — that’s describes it poetically Sushma! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  8. Great post! One thing I’ve been trying to learn is that “bad” is no more than our assessment of how something impacts us. Sure, it may be uncomfortable, even painful, but in the whole scheme of things there are no such value judgments. Nature, including whatever she might do to us, doesn’t see pain or even death as bad. These things just are. What she’s less likely to understand is unhappiness.

    • Yes Jeffrey! When you begin to see life events as “neutral” then it all comes down to our reaction to them. We create our own reality. 🙂

  9. Barrie, I had the most ridiculously happy childhood. But guess what, things changed for me after marriage. I had to go through many,many tough times that an average person don’t, but I came out on top. Not easy, but my bad things only made me stronger and while I couldn’t see that when I was sobbing on the floor (Elizabeth Gilbert style but more serious in nature), I am almost grateful for them now. Thanks for a great post

    • Hi Marya,
      Perhaps your happy childhood gave you a strong foundation in order to cope with difficult events as an adult. I hope so. It certainly appears that you have moved through it with grace!

  10. I can relate to this post, and to what Maya said above. I have parents who are extremely fearful, and as a result, they have very small lives.
    I think it might be “Finding Nemo,” where they talk about how wishing that “nothing” (bad) ever happens to you, means nothing (good or bad) will ever happen to you.
    I’ve also heard Oprah talking about Maya Angelou telling her to say “thank you,” even in the midst of a terrible time. There is always more at work than we know, and to stop and say thank you, even in trying circumstances helps restore faith.

    • Hi Amy,
      That is so true. A big, bold life comes with risk. If you stay closed up, you miss the extraordinary in life. Have you ever noticed that when you are in the midst of something really awful, you almost feel more alive? It’s like you are touching the most raw and real part of existence. It hurts, but it is so deeply authentic and real that there’s a strange beauty to it.

  11. Hi Barrie a great (and important) article during a difficult time.

    I am reminded of a story from Jung. Two patients come and see him; the first says he has just been promoted to a senior position in his company- Jung says, oh really well we have lots of work to do this will take years to “assimilate”.

    The second has just been retrenched, and Jung says, this is wonderful let’s have a glass of champagne to celebrate!

    I think what your quote from Dam Millman carries a profound truth. Whilst not every difficulty is a blessing, many, many are; much more so than we would imagine at the time of their happening.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Stephen,
      Thank you for sharing that story. I think that even difficulties that are clearly unnecessary and awful (the death of a child, a terrible illness, etc.) can teach us something about ourselves and about the people who love us. The power of resilience and the power of love are never so profound as when they are tested with adversity.

  12. The fear of failure can really be binding and limiting.
    A question that I always asked myself when starting on a project that I feel afraid to start because I am afraid it might fail; “If I don’t try I won’t succeed with the project, would I consider that a failure?”

    Many times not trying is the same thing as failing.
    Wayne Gretzky said it even better “You miss 100% of the shots you do not take”.

    • That’s a great question to ask yourself Daniel! It’s hard to argue with yourself when you know that avoidance means failure in your mind. I’m sure you’ve accomplished a lot this way!

  13. It also helps me to remember that the bad experiences are usually only temporary, and there is usually something good just around the corner.

  14. “Of all of the bad things that have happened, the worst by far is living in fear of bad things happening.”

    This really hits the nail on the head for me. I have always had a problem with the ‘what if’ question. It seems that it is much harder when there is an air of the unknown. Sure, bad things will happen, but they aren’t the entire world. It is like you said that we all have bad things that happen but they are vastly outnumbered by the great things if we go and seek after our passions.

    • Hi Stephen,
      Yes, if you look at it very practically, the law of averages probably reveals the odds are good that the bad thing won’t happen. Or it won’t be as bad as you imagine. That practical reality always helps me.

  15. I’m not naturally a person who frets too much about bad things happening, but all that changed when I had my children. Suddenly you want everything to be just right for them, no pain, all good things, perfect health etc etc. Thats when I started to experience anxiety about bad things happening. It was quite a new experience for me and incredibly disarming. After some years of internal wrestling I am learning to let go with my kids…..a little!!!

  16. Hi Barre. The one thing that resonated with me was, “Of all of the bad things that have happened, the worst by far is living in fear of bad things happening.” The economy, jobs lost, people losing their homes—all devastating experiences. We plan and plan but life sometimes just happens. I believe money has so much power over us that we lose our equilibrium, our peace, our ability to connect to our internal wisdom. It is over time, that we regain our equilibrium by accepting what is presented in our life circumstances and seeking guidance and wisdom—–fear only delays it. We do have so much to be thankful for each and every day.

  17. It is so easy, almost natural, to get caught up in self-pity and despair when things are going wrong in your life, but you can be happy in spite of your circumstances. The choice is yours to be more powerful than any circumstances in your life.

  18. Great Post Barrie. What I like about your message is that you are gently reminding us that we are responsible for how we interpret our life and ultimately our happiness.
    Thank you

    • I’m so glad it resonated with you Ed. Yes, I think our lives are completely up to our interpretation. We can wear dark glasses or clear ones. 🙂

  19. thanks for your beautiful sentences, I live with the fear in my heart because of my bitter past, I have a problem, when I see a person with difficulty I think that problem occurs for me too, I can not see poors or deprived, my heart breaks and I can not continue normally, my heart is full of sadness and fear, I can not find the God, He is not in my heart, I didnt cry when I should cry now I am full of darkeness with an empty heart please guide me if you can


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