The Ohio State University at Lima

Happiness level tied to ability to respond to failure

Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll has spent a lot of time looking at what makes people happy and successful. His conclusion may surprise you. It is learning how to respond to failure. The people who have failed and done a good job of coping with the setback are more happy than those who have failed but poorly coped and just as happy as those who have never failed in the long term.

Carroll is an associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Lima. Much of his research has probed how and when people either abandon or embrace their dreams and the possible selves they could become. Examining the consequences of those decisions shows a surprising downstream effect on mental health.

“It appears that the real trick to building a happy future is to learn to respond to failure,” Carroll said. “A lot of times, at least in my own work, the people who have never failed – they’re actually no more happy and healthy as those who have failed one or two times but found a way to make sense of it, to gather some meaning like this was meant to be and that didn’t work out but it led me to this.”

Even outside the research setting, Carroll can see the principles play out with the college students in his classes. Many come in with imposed expectations and goals that don’t mesh with their own hopes and abilities.

Despite societal pressure to follow a narrowly-defined path to “success,” Carroll is careful to point out that success and happiness look very different to different people. He encourages his students to look carefully at how they match their actual skills and strengths with careers.

“If they don’t know what they really want to do but they just feel like they should be going this way, that this is the way they are going to succeed, I think that is really kind of an unfortunate perspective. Whenever you make your happiness contingent on one outcome, you are kind of leaving it up to external forces.”

For example, a student who is strong in science and math and wants to work in medicine may automatically assume they should be on a track to become a medical doctor. If it turns out their skills don’t line up with the requirements for medical school, the most successful student will evaluate their actual strengths and interests and move forward instead of allowing the initial failure to hold them back. For instance, it may turn out that the science the student is best suited for is computer science and her contribution to the medical field is developing nanotechnology to fight disease.

A lack of self-awareness can translate into an inappropriate blame game that shifts the focus from the person to outside forces. People who externalize the blame when things don’t go their way lose the opportunity that failure offers for self-examination and path correction, the proverbial gut check.

“In our studies, the ones who had experienced setbacks and didn’t have any skills to effectively cope with it, it became a downward spiral,” Carroll said. “After one or two or three failures going along this process, if you’re still not looking in the mirror and saying ‘Is there something I could do better?,’ reaching this point where there is so much negative affect that they can’t even move forward, it has implications for your future.”

Parents may think they are helping when they agree that a bad game can be chalked up to the refs, the coaching, or some other outside force. Or a low test score had nothing to do with study habits, preparation or sleep. In reality, encouraging the child to always ask “What could I have done better” regardless of any outside forces will result in a more resilient adult.

“It is balancing the immediate gains and benefits versus the long term,” Carroll said. “Beyond the moment of knowing how to get better in football, soccer or basketball, it is a life lesson. If they learn it early, they’ll transfer it to other areas. So, if they do it in sports, they are going to start to do it in academics. If they pursue things in academics, then they are going to do it in their job, then they are going to do it in their marriage, then they are going to do it in their finances.”

Much like motor skills, coping skills are easiest learned from a young age, but they can be acquired later in life as well by asking the right questions and really searching out the answer within.

Carroll calls the coping methods metacognitive strategies. They are ways people can regulate their own behavior to keep themselves on track. These include positive self-talk, defining strategies for getting them where they want to be like writing three things they want to do in a week, imagining back up plans in case the thing they are pursuing doesn’t work out, and asking “Is there any way I can take what I’m good at and find another area that I could work in?”

“Those types of things really improve it. It gives them a sense of strength,” Carroll said. “Those students that failed one or two times and used those like a learning attribution, they are just as happy as those with no prior failures at all. ”