Failure IS an Option

Many of you know know that I’m part of a happiness study founded by neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison. The science of happiness shows that failure is an option. What matters is how we respond to it.


Researchers found conclusively that we enjoy a higher quality of life when we experience a certain number of setbacks—5 to 7 of them. Why? Because setbacks give us confidence that we can weather adversity, and they also reinforce what we truly value—for example, health, loving relationships—which can result in enhanced priorities and different goals.

On the other hand:

  • Too many setbacks can result in breaking one’s spirit.
  • Too few setbacks can protect someone from developing resilience.

Resilient people tend to “make meaning” as difficult challenges are faced and overcome, which allows them to discover positive outcomes that wouldn’t have happened if the challenge hadn’t occurred. This is called BeneFindingfinding benefit in negative experiences.

What was the last benefit you found from a negative experience?


80 thoughts on “Failure IS an Option

  1. This is so accurate – I counted my setbacks on my fingers and it came to be eight. Co-incidentally, I feel I am at a stage where I am happy, fairly successful, and I know that no failure is too bad. Thanks for this! Now I know I am headed in the correct direction!

  2. Many people look forward to retirement and are glad to quite their jobs. Not me–I felt lost for awhile because I missed the interaction with students that teaching provided. For awhile I felt adrift, but now I have discovered many wonderful people through blogging.

    About failure: When you stumble or even fall down, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off is the important thing. Think about Thomas Edison. If he hadn’t tried that one more time, no light bulbs! Pretty soon I will be doing a blog on traits to survivors & thrivers.

    Great post, Laurie.

    • Marian – Thank you for sharing the example of Thomas Edison. As a writer, I think of the rejection letters I’ve received and Googled the following bit of encouraging information — enjoy!

      Here, with the number of times the book was turned down, are some examples to give you courage next time you receive a rejection letter:
      Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis (15)
      Carrie, Stephen Kng (30)
      Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen (140)
      Diary of Anne Frank (16)
      Dr. Seuss books (15)
      Dubliners, James Joyce (22)
      Dune, Frank Herbert (23)
      Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (38)
      Harry Potter book one, J. K. Rowling (9)
      Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach (18)
      Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl (20)
      M*A*S*H, Richard Hooker (17)
      The Peter Principle, Laurence Peter (16)
      The Prncess Diaries, Meg Cabot (17)
      Watership Down, Richard Adams (26)
      A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, (26)

  3. As you know my daily experience of being my Mother’s caregiver, who has “mild” Alzheimers, is a so called negative experience! What I learn is how to be with that dis ease each and everyday! Who am I within that space?
    Maybe there is a blog here because I think I have a lot to say and this is your space. Options are choices of direction we can take…

  4. I tend to have to try EVERYTHING I really want twice before I succeed: driving test, getting into my chosen MA, running the NYC marathon (Hurricane Sandy), publishing my novel…it’s quite a weird phenomenon but I have come to terms with it. It’s how I seem to operate. So I do think those failures helped push me harder. But now I question if it isn’t self-orchestrated so that I enjoy a higher quality of life… 🙂

  5. In answer to your question, this morning! Yesterday was a day that found myself all out of sorts. Had to go back to a “job” after spending a wonderful summer in the fields (not making any profit though!!) . Tried to find a unique, fun gift for a baby shower only to be poo-pooded by a couple of people…yesterday had a wet, cold blanket on it. Today awoke to a hard frost and went out and took a brisk walk. Reminded myself that the Universe is in charge and today has been given to me as a gift and I am choosing to make it a more productive, healthy day for myself. From one who gives and gives, that is a huge statement. Yes, today will be about me! Thanks for letting me air this….

  6. My heart attack in 2010 sent my World spinning off on a new tangent and yet it was the catalyst for a new and more meaningful life. One where it was important that I re-evaluate and designate new priorities to live a more mindful and authentic life. Scrutinizing my core values and belief system to better align myself with the real World instead of the World in my head. These days when I take a tumble and fall, I’m more inclined to look for the reasons instead of laying blame, search out the positive aspects and examine the facts from a different perspective. After all the view is much different from being on your back looking up than from the top rung of an unstable ladder looking down. Looking down gives the mistaken idea that you are at the heights of your aspirations, looking up lets you realize that there is no limit, the Sky goes on forever.

  7. My sister has recently moved to Wales, and although she likes it there, she misses her friends and family . This week she decided to bring her caravan back home so she could see us all . We went to see her on Sat… it poured with rain but through the rain we saw a double rainbow (I think i said in a previous post how my sister and myself are used to making rainbows out of problems ) . Well today it is still raining and I texted her ‘who wants sunshine when you can have rainbows ‘ lol
    It’s true isn’t it Laurie

  8. The fir trees around our home are huge! They are so tall that there is no longer enough sun on any one spot to grow a vegetable garden or sun-loving flowers. Plus, there can be a short supply of water during the summer. The positive outcome is that we admire and are happy to our grow trees. They are majestic and the house is still bright and cheerful because of the sky lights and opening over the valley. There are also plenty of local fruit and vegetables from local farmers. We are now thinking about low maintenance options. The benefits are that we can easily leave to travel, we can enjoy the yard without all the work and I can get a garden plot at the community garden if I still miss all the time digging in the dirt. However, I surprised myself as I didn’t this year. So, there is life after gardening – who knew? Great post and question Laurie!

    • Terrill – Oh, I just love the personal example you shared here. And I can think of yet another benefit…

      …it gives you more time to paint so the rest of us can enjoy the fruit of your “artistic gardening…”

  9. This is good information, and hits home with me. I think sometimes it makes a difference, too, in how much recovery time there is between “setbacks”, both in how they are defined (some things might not seem so much like a setback if one were not still reeling from another) and how they are handled. I am a very resilient person, and I credit early tragedies with that confidence you speak of. I know that I can survive…however, lately it seems sometimes like I was given a “one-two punch” and am now being pummeled without having had a chance to get my feet back on the ground. Thanks!

  10. Great post Laurie. Yes, too many setbacks can be hard on you – sometimes I think I’ a queen of setbacks (notice I said “a” as I am only one of many). Some of the setbacks do make me more resilient in that I get tougher dealing with the next setback. But my trust level in well, life working out, things going well, still doesn’t rise.

    • Sharon – I can well imagine what you describe would, indeed, have an impact on your trust level. I think that’s where I would look IN, knowing that I may be a bit leery of others, but I just as darned tootin’ can trust in my own core.

  11. After having been diagnosed with breast cancer, having a mastectomy and chemo, I have a greater appreciation of the world around me and the beauty and joys in that world. With our current setback, husband’s terminal cancer, I am learning about the incredible generosity and love of our friends.

  12. Laurie, thank you for your thought provoking and informative post. I have a little picture in my home that states: “If you make life to easy for your children you handicap them.” Adversity teaches us life lessons that often are the most valuable. My parents’ health challenges taught me to love and appreciate my mother and father, to value the gifts of good health, and to take good care of the many levels of good health!

  13. You know I remember ‘benefinding’ from such a young age and I laugh now that it was my own brand of CBT. I was very aware that whatever I was going through, someone else was worse off AND that at some point in the future it would make a good story.

    That still holds true, perhaps even more so now I’m older. Every evening my family and I fall asleep in with a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. We have access to education and clean water, so that makes us among the lucky ones in life.

  14. Being a dyslexic in the school system wasn’t easy. I didn’t fit into the little box ‘they’ labelled as successful so I began to view myself as a failure.
    I attended university but kept academics at arms length by enrolling in off-campus courses and by taking correspondence courses. I enjoyed my studies and was impressed at how well I did. But even today, intellectuals easily intimidate me.
    However, recently I attended a book launch at the University of British Columbia.
    Well, because of the book’s subject matter: Understanding Dyslexia and other Learning Disabilities by Linda Siegel.
    I sulked into the room feeling out of place. But they validated my opinion—in fact, they sought it out.
    Am I a success? Am I a failure? It all depends on how I view myself.

  15. Very interesting. And that “5 to 7”–I assume these are big things? Losing a job, death of a loved one, divorce–things like that? What happens beyond that, crushed spirits? Hmmm… seems so variable and subjective depending on the person, I just wonder how that number could be so conclusive…

    • Michael – Yes, it’s definitely “big” things, the likes of which you mentioned. It’s based on research done by a huge team. Like you, I find it fascinating that it can be measured in tangible numbers…

  16. Well, Laurie, I think I have learned my lessons through failure. I know that when I force the issue, I usually lose. This has taught me to listen to the rhythms of my life and watch how things are flowing.

  17. Laurie thank so much for the list of authors that were turned down . It really gives me confidence to submit some of my work …and to hell if I get a hundred refusals . What’s good for the likes of J.K and King etc is good enough for me .
    Cherry x

  18. When I lost everything — my mother (cancer), health (GOK (‘God Only Knows’ Disease)), marriage (divorce), practice (due to health, I sold it and took a medical leave) and identity (see prior) — I chose to start all over in a new career. The loss and suffering in those years turned out to be my greatest blessing, and brought me to this place in my life and made me into the person I am today. I am grateful beyond measure.

  19. This was a really helpful post. I like the concept of BeneFinding — something that both my young adult children have actually talked to me about (not the term, but the occasions in their lives). For myself, I think the process of writing and submission can actually fit this model well. Having to put myself out there, face failure, then come back to revise writing has made me a stronger writer (and person). Great post, Laurie!

    • Julia – Benefinding with children would be a wonderful way to teach them to look for the silver lining on every cloud.

      I can relate with your writing example. In the query/submission process I get a tremendous amount of exercise picking-myself-up-dusting-myself-off-and-starting-all-over-again.

  20. Love this post, Laurie. Setbacks are what keep me going. They give me time to reset what is before me and come at it from a different direction. Without them, where would the blessings be? Where would the learning be? And I think I’d be terribly bored.

  21. “Because setbacks give us confidence that we can weather adversity, and they also reinforce what we truly value—for example health, loving relationships—which can result in enhanced priorities and different goals.”

    Oh how true Laurie! And the follow-up findings that two few and two many setbacks are counterproductive is dead-on as well. Life has a wide variety of happy and mournful moments. Our family health crisis has yielded incredible outpourings of love. loyalty and support. There can be nothing as gratifying in life.

    Beautiful post!

    • Sam – Many thought went through my mind — including those very health crises — as I was wordsmithing this post. I’m so glad for the love, loyalty, and support your family received throughout 🙂

  22. Hi Laurie! Great post made me think about some of my negative experiences in life that have made me stronger and more aware of certain things. With every negative experience comes a valuable lesson that’s for sure! Have a wonderful day 🙂

  23. I think I am one giant set-back and that has also given me great ability. I can analyze a situation or behavior with incredible integration and speed and be right on the money. This incredible skill is from all the dusting myself off and starting again – making changes first and not just leaping into the frey.

    I have been turned down 84 times to be on medical ethics boards, I stopped applying last March for anything. I have never gotten a position from my resume or interview. Every job I have achieved is when I have been working on something else and someone notices me and my work or what I am saying.

    2012 was the year of too much – I became disheartened. I am just cleaning storm drains and reading these days.

    Someone last year gave me one of Terrill’s painting ( apple blossom – which I just love and use for meditation) I decided that was my “gold watch” for my good efforts and I let go

    • Patricia – I appreciate what you’ve shared, thank you. The two pieces that really jumped out at me were: “…not just leaping into the frey,” and “I let go.” Both difficult, but the second harder by far.

  24. Laurie, I love that you shared the number of rejections so many famous and respected authors received for what are perhaps some of the best regarded works. Thank you for reinforcing that we need to be committed to continue trying in the face of failure.

  25. I understand what you’re saying but to be true, I don’t think I’d be happier with more setbacks and adversity. I’m getting too old to keep experimenting that way myself. What I do when I see a setback coming, I take a nap. That’ll delay it for at least an hour or so.

  26. “What was the last benefit you found from a negative experience?”
    — Self knowledge, meeting my own fears and anger. And a little later ‘i can do it’, and ‘I did it’

  27. I find benefit in negative experiences every day.
    Right now I have a headache which is telling me that I need to wear a masks when going into the tunnel house.
    And that fact is telling me that I need to let the compost mature a bit more before I put it in the tunnel house next year.
    But the tomatoes and lettuces don’t seem to mind – they’re growing like mushrooms.

  28. Laurie, you are ever so intelligent!

    I entirely agree that our responses result in the outcome of how happy we are with our lives and just in general. Within the last two years I’d say, I have finally learned this through reading some books and just some simple time spent thinking by myself. People always call me crazy because I’ll try to be really optimistic about situations, not be mad when I supposedly should, and not regretting what I have already done (if I did that, then I’d be wasting a lot of time on what if’s, but if’s, and could’ve’s and should’ve’s).

    Overall, I appreciated this read and your honesty–keep up the great work!



  29. I’m with Patricia60, more setbacks, roadblocks, and bad decisions than the positive. But, like her, I’ve been ‘given’ direction from friends and family, even the internet. You have to be open to next steps and new opportunities, even scary ones, when they appear. Now I’m writing novels about being brave and following your own life path. Many problems are brought about by women trying to please others at risk of their own happiness and need. I do see hope in the next generation.

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