How to Rise Above Difficult Circumstances and Be Happy

Rise Up

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~Viktor Frankl

I first got wind of this transformative concept when I was a teenager reading Man’s Search For Meaning.

It has played beautifully into what has become my life theme: how people transcend their adversities. I’ve forever been inspired by how (some) people can go through so much and yet be able to rise above and live well. I call it living well despite…

It seems to boil down to something beyond circumstance and external situations. Because, as we all know, there are so many people who have gone through terrible situations and yet manage to be upbeat and strong, and push forward in their lives; and yet others who sink into perpetual disappointment and despair. It seems to be a natural tendency to go one way or the other.

When I went through some of my darkest times—having a child born with disabilities and having the same child go through a year-long near-fatal medical crisis, whose outcome was nothing short of miraculous—it was Viktor Frankl’s concept of “man’s inner strength raising him above his outward fate” that I kept going back to, and that definitely helped me stay afloat and cope well.

With my former dark time, I fell pretty deep into despair, and only with the intense help of a gifted therapist was I able to get through the initial grief and grow into my new reality.

With the latter situation, I incorporated specific actions and thought patterns to help me along the terrifying year of my daughter’s life-threatening illness.

What makes some become better and some bitter?

I now have a new piece of fascinating information that ties in to my life theme.

I recently completed a certificate program in positive psychology. There is much proven research on just how much we can do to give ourselves that meaningful and joyful life we all naturally want; or I should say, that happiness we are all after.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychologist and researcher in the field of happiness and well-being, came up with a pie chart representation showing the three determinants of happiness. Lo and behold, circumstance is the smallest piece of the pie, at only a 10% contributor to our happiness.

Our genes make up 50%. And here’s the most powerful and influential piece of the pie: our behavior, our intentional activities, make up 40% of our happiness. This can really be the make-or-break part.

This means there’s a lot we can do to increase our life satisfaction, above and beyond our circumstances, negative as they may be.

So yes, we can rise above our difficult situations and we can become better, by first and foremost recognizing and acknowledging that we are not victims but rather active players and creators of our playing field, and then by intentionally reconstructing our views.


As Nietzsche wrote, “He who has why to live can bear almost any how.” We always need a reason to go on, especially when the road is slippery under our feet. It’s all too easy to fall and succumb. But just having this stick to hold onto to guide us can keep us on the path.

When my daughter was in a rehab hospital for nine months, what got me up each and every morning was the explicit purpose of being by her side as a cheerleader, encouraging her on her tough fight and climb up the mountain of human functions—from lifting her finger to walking again. It was a very steep ascent, one that entailed lots of grueling work.


It seems to be human nature to have a slant toward the negative. It’s very easy to spot the faults and issues in things. The good news is that even if we weren’t born a glass-half-full person, we can train ourselves to see more of the positive.

It’s about what we focus on. What do you hone in on—the rose or the thorn? When we take in the beauty of the rose, we start to notice other beauty around us. More comes into our purview.

Positive psychology professor, Tal Ben-Shahar states, “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”

Permission to be Human

This means allowing ourselves to feel the gamut of emotions—the unpleasant ones that sometimes drive us to suppress them by numbing means, and the good ones.

Restricting the flow of painful feelings impedes the flow of the positive ones, for human emotions all flow through the same pipeline. We are blessed with a rich emotional make-up. We need to give ourselves permission to feel. This helps create a rich, authentic life.

Once we are aware of our feelings, we can then choose how we act and respond.

Choose to Choose

At every moment we have a choice. Are we even aware of this? We can choose to take things for granted or appreciate the good; we can choose to view failure as a catastrophe or as a learning opportunity; we can choose to succumb or make the best of what happens.

We can walk in the street with our head down (in our phones) or look up and smile at people, which sends in and out positivity.

“Things don’t necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best of things that happen.” ~Tal Ben-Shahar

So, when the rough times come or the bad things happen, are we able to find or make some good? Can we find the silver lining? Can we look to make lemonade out of lemons?

When adversity hits, we can become better; we can rise above; we can even grow beyond and do things we never thought we could. We now know it’s more in our power than we may like to believe.

It may sometimes feel easier to be a victim, but it’s certainly not a role that leads to a fulfilling, satisfying, and meaningful life.

Our choices, both concrete and attitudinal, make up this 40% of the pie, and this can make us better above and beyond the other half.

Photo by Llima Orosa

About Harriet Cabelly

Harriet Cabelly, LCSW is a therapist specializing in grief, loss. and critical life situations. She's also a speaker, author, and group leader. Harriet works from the lens of positive psychology and existentialism. She has a private practice seeing clients both in-person and virtually. She is passionate about helping people cope and grow through critical life-changing circumstances. Harriet is the author of Living Well Despite Adversity: Inspiration for Finding Renewed Meaning and Joy in Your Life. Visit her at rebuildlifenow.com.

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