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Living Well Despite Adversity Depends on These 3 Skills

By Harriet Cabelly October 28, 2021 Mindset

A common belief is that our happiness and wellbeing is in direct proportion to our circumstances. When things are going well, we’re happy. When problems or challenges enter in, we’re miserable.

And we’ve all said things like, “When I lose weight, I’ll be happy.” Or, “When I get married, I’ll feel better.” Or, “When I finish my degree…” All the whens connect to a happening or circumstance to a happiness outcome.

Happiness Is Not a Continuous ‘High’

But as I’m sure we all know by now, that sense of ecstasy and wellbeing doesn’t last too long. We soon return to our baseline of wellbeing, known as our hedonic set point. So once the ‘high’ of landing that new job or new partner wears off, we return to our habituated level of happiness.

Clearly, while circumstance may initially influence our state of happiness, it is not a great predictor of it in the long term.

In fact, according to the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor, circumstance accounts for only 10% of our ‘pie of happiness’. And just to complete that pie for you, 50% is our genetic/hereditary make-up and 40% is our intentional behavior, attitudes, beliefs.

I have always been fascinated by how some people who seemingly ‘have it all’ (external circumstances) can walk around quite unhappy, complaining, and negative. At the same time, many with no major ‘stuff’ going on in their lives seem to be upbeat, pleasant, helpful, cheery, and overall exude a sense of wellbeing, despite their struggles.

Researching How We Cope with Challenges

As a lover of people’s stories, I embarked on a project of interviewing people with different challenges and losses to see how they coped and lived on through it. I eventually turned this into a book, Living Well Despite Adversity: Inspiration for Finding Renewed, Meaning, and Joy in Your Life.

What I’m always amazed by is just how well people can live on despite their challenges. This seems to be key in this life since we all face and endure loss and hardship, causing grief and pain. Nobody goes through unscathed. So then, the question that arises is: how do we live well despite…?

This has been a theme question in my life, both as a fascinated observer of people and life and personally, as someone who used to make a mental list of all the things that befell me and in the numerous support groups in which I could be a member.

We all have a spirit of survival, of strength and resilience. And we have the ability to build and grow our strength and resilience. Research now points to resiliency being a skillset that can be learned, and – like a muscle – can be grown. It is not a fixed trait.

What Skills You Need to Live a Good Life

So, what are a few key ingredients that go into living a good life despite….? My observations were highlighted by interviewees who shared their raw stories of pain and loss, and their way towards healing and renewal.


Our potential is truly limitless. We set up our own limits by our mindset and beliefs. And we imprison ourselves with our limiting thoughts of “I can’t.” With the mindset that we can always grow as long as we’re still here, our creativity and problem-solving can enhance our lives, and therefore our potential. We set up lots of believable excuses to limit us.

“It never crossed my mind that being in a wheelchair is bigger than me as a person.” —Gabriel Gordell, who traveled across the country – 3000 miles in 99 days – in a manual wheelchair.


Yes, we are victims of certain circumstances but need not maintain the stance of victimhood. That just keeps us stuck. We always have a choice in how we respond to what befalls us. We can get out of our own way by choosing to choose. Again, it is a mindset, a belief that we do have a choice. Not easy but doable!

“Each day I have to work to go on; each day I decide to live. I am not the same person I was. That is the way it should be. Losing Koby means that part of me was killed. But rather than mourn the person I was, I work to bless the person I have become.” —Sherri Mandell on grieving the murder of her son.


When things happen, even ‘normal’ life transitions and disappointments, we must discover new meaning and purpose. We re-purpose throughout our lives. How much more so when calamity or any type of challenge/difficulty occurs.

We need to reconnect with a purpose to keep us going. Purpose is a coping tool and a way forward towards healing.

“What I need to do is impact someone in a positive way every single day.” —Julia Fox Garrison, after having a near-fatal stroke at age 37.

Getting back to the pie of happiness, having 40% in our control, gives us lots of room to focus on the things we can control – our choices, our greater potential that can take some out-of-the-box and risk-taking thinking and problem-solving, our purpose, resilience, managing emotions, and the list goes on.

If you’re looking for an inspiration, the Pursuit of Happyness movie is just the right one to watch.

What ingredients go into your living well through your challenges? Have you ‘decided’ that you can still have a rich life through the pain? How are you building your resiliency muscle? How have you pulled yourself out of the victim mentality that is so easy to fall into? What is your belief around the idea of circumstances determining our happiness and wellbeing? Please share your thoughts below.

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The Author

Harriet Cabelly is a clinical social worker and positive psychology coach. She is passionate about helping people cope and grow through their critical life-changing circumstances, guiding them towards rebuilding their lives with renewed meaning and purpose. Visit her website, and sign up to get free chapters from her book, Living Well Despite Adversity.

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