Happiness Amid Challenges

April 8, 2024
Louis Tay

Louis Tay

When we conjure scenes of happiness in our minds, many of us imagine stress-free, idyllic images: lounging by the beach, meaningful conversations-and, in this season, exams being over. These images of happiness directly contrast with the hassles and challenges we face daily.

A significant question is whether we can experience happiness despite challenging circumstances. When I was younger, the answer was clear: happiness and hardship are mutually exclusive. So, the maxim that guided my life was to avoid challenges and hardship for happiness.

Yet, as I matured, I began to see that challenges and hardships in life were inescapable. Moreover, they can even yield profound and enduring happiness. Overcoming hardship can not only bring about a deeper sense of happiness, but one can even find happiness while living through it. In other words, happiness can be found amid challenges.

Research shows several fascinating threads that converge on this idea.

  • Hardship-and even personal misfortune-leads to much less unhappiness than people believe. People believe that physically disabled and financially deprived individuals are much less happy. But in reality, people living with these challenging conditions are not as unhappy as we think (Diener & Diener, 1996). This biased judgment leads us to believe that we will not find happiness in hardship when this is not necessarily the case.
  • Challenging oneself can create happiness. Choosing goals that challenge one’s skill can create pleasurable flow states–whereas a lack of challenge can lead to boredom (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This is why some people work 80-hour weeks in a startup. It is also why people choose to inflict themselves for, on average, four or more hours to run marathons!
  • Profound challenges create new ways of conceiving happiness. Adversity can sharpen what matters more in our lives, changing the basis for our happiness. A longitudinal study found that individuals diagnosed with severe health conditions valued social recognition and achievement significantly less over time (Bleidorn, Schwaba, & Hopwood, 2020). While many of us implicitly know that living for the recognition of others is pointless, we do this anyway despite ourselves. Living amid hard circumstances can direct us toward more meaningful and enduring bases of happiness.

We all have a natural inclination to avoid hardship and challenge. While this impulse often serves us well, it may prevent us from thriving in unavoidable or meaningful challenges. I hope these ideas can help rightly orient us toward challenging circumstances--and maybe even embrace them for our happiness.

Louis Tay: Louis Tay is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science. He is a Provost Fellow on the Steps to Leaps initiative and oversees the following: (a) Steps to Leaps assessments; (b) research on Steps to Leaps topics (e.g., leadership, grit); (c) developing evidence-based interventions for students; and (d) creating and teaching courses aligned with Steps to Leaps (e.g., Science of Well-Being). 


Bleidorn, W., Schwaba, T., & Hopwood, C. J. (2021). Health adversity and value change.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(2), 248-257.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins
Publishers. New York, NY.

Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7(3), 181–185. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00354.x