Staying Happy in Hopeless Situations

by Bill Cottringer

"No situation is completely devoid of all hope; hope is always there waiting patiently for patience to see it."
-The author.

Staying reasonably happy in hopeless situations is certainly one of life's greatest challenge. Hopeless, impossible situations can hit us at the beginning or ending of life or anywhere in between, usually without a whole lot of warning. Consider the likely unhappiness in these hopeless situations:

  • Being born with a serious disability.
  • Being terrorized by school bullies out to destroy you.
  • Getting in trouble with the law that ruins your relationships, job and finances.
  • Being stuck in a miserable marriage but having too many good reasons to stay (like children).
  • Losing everything in a natural disaster.
  • Being the best parent you can be and ending up with a son or daughter on drugs, in jail or dead or in the hospital from a suicide attempt.
  • Caring for a loved one who is dying and is an awful burden with a worse attitude.
  • Hating your job, boss or co-workers but not being able to afford to quit.
  • Or anything else as equally bad that you just don't deserve or want to cope with.
Most of us get challenged by these dismal types of hopeless situations. But it is our response during such extreme adversity that determines who we become as a person, trying to stay happy when the disaster strikes and when everything is working against that happiness and the temptation to give up is greatest. Only the strong survive and only the very strongest thrive. It is a mother of a test!

Successfully navigation through the minefields of these hopeless challenges is a two part process involving: (a) gaining a deeper understanding of what is going on, and (b) Becoming more open to making a radical change in your thinking.

What Needs to be Understood?

Regardless of the specifics of hopeless situations they all have some things in common and these realities must be better understood to maintain your sanity, let alone retain your happiness:

  1. When you are trapped in a hopeless situation, it is important to keep things in proper perspective, even though the hopelessness and unhappiness are all-consuming and the proper perspective seems way out of reach. Complaining a little is a good thing, but like sugar or alcohol, enough is enough because it can only go downhill sooner before later. So, a little complaining feels good but too much can alienate you from family and friends. This is the right perspective to have—controlling what you can, and also realizing it is not forever in the big scheme of things. You can remind yourself of that fact by remembering all the other good things you have experienced and enjoyed as an antidote.
  2. Most difficult situations are clouded with fear of the unknown, which makes them seem worse, causing you to expect the worst. But it is the hope for a better life and good outcome from our efforts during such adversity that drives us forward in life. Fear of hopelessness being permanent in these impossible situations is normal, but just like complaining, enough is enough. There is always hope buried deep inside the hopeless situation patiently waiting to be discovered by patience. But it rarely comes when you want it most.
  3. Too much thinking or feeling about a hopeless situation can keep you locked inside a vicious circle with no way out. This leads to the end game where you find yourself being unhappy about being unhappy and afraid of being afraid, and then more unhappy and more fearful about not being able to do anything about it all. Keeping busy physically is the best anecdote medicine to thinking and feeling overload to avoid going past the point of no return in such a dangerous vicious circle to the no-where zone. Physical affection and emotional compassion (not sympathy) from family and friends also helps.

What Thinking Needs to Change?

  1. Rarely does any impossible situation not have some way out. The problem is that you aren't looking for the right solution hard enough or more likely, not being flexible enough about what you can or can't do and what consequences you will or won't accept for your choices. Like taking chances though, flexibility increases happiness, if in no other way than just giving you more to be happy about, as with the ending quote about happiness. Mental flexibility and adaptability are always free choices available even during the worst of hopeless situations, but that reality is very hard to see sometimes.
  2. When you are in a hopeless situation, your thinking isn't at its best. Never-the-less you have to force yourself to notice what you are failing to notice—that you have a tendency to always anticipate or expect the worst in these bleak situations and that freezes up the decision-making and acting processes into paralysis. Or, you are just not owning your responsibility for what you did or didn't do to get here, and then not being willing to take chances and risk changes in order to undo what may need undoing. In the meantime, happiness can just accumulate in layers and you end up spending most of your time being unhappy about being unhappy and wondering what the heck is going on, with less and less energy to control what you can and do whatever else you can do to make things better.
  3. There comes a time when you must learn to accept the reality that some situations really are impossible with no immediate happy ending in sight. But paradoxically, by trying to accept that you probably can't even accept that unacceptable reality, you will likely forget what you were trying to accept, and begin to get over it all by default. There is a good amount of peace that comes from un-thinking this paradox. The resolution can build a lot of happiness, but it requires some very creative thinking or perhaps none at all, to simply appreciate the benefits or opportunities for growth right before your very eyes. The happiness that comes from that moment of enlightenment can last a lifetime.

"We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have."
-Frederick Koenig.