Nietzsche said it first: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Christopher Hitchens was pondering the question when he was dying. He did not live to answer it.
Then, Kelly Clarkson offered the definitive interpretation in a song entitled: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”
We are prone to believe that great minds get things right. We grant a special authority to geniuses. We do not ask whether great thinkers like Nietzsche are right or wrong. We are more concerned with whether we are worthy of their ideas.
The Economist reports that when a researcher at Penn State University put Nietzsche’s idea to the test he discovered that it was wrong.
David Almeida demonstrated that being subjected to small traumas over time will more likely undermine you emotional well-being than contribute to your strength of character.
Of course, it might also be the case that people who have strong character do not allow themselves to suffer insults and injuries, rudeness and abuse.
When Almeida first interviewed his research subjects he asked them to evaluate their moods. Then he asked them to report how often they felt stressed over everyday situations.
The Economist explains that:
These stresses included arguments; situations in which participants felt they could have argued but chose not to; problems at work; problems at home; and feeling upset over a problem that a friend was struggling with.
Then, ten years later Almeida re-interviewed the subjects who were still alive and were willing to participate.
When he and his colleagues analysed the answers, they realised that, contrary to Nietzsche’s dictum, seemingly trivial daily stresses in the past had taken a long-term toll on mental health. They found that the more often people (who had not then been treated for a disorder) felt nervous, fidgety, worthless or hopeless ten years ago, the higher were their chances of having developed a disorder in the interim.
This tells us that the path to mental health passes through stress management. If you do not subject yourself to unnecessary stress, to negative people, to minor slights, to insults and rudeness you will live longer and healthier.
So far, so good.
But, think about this. When patients undergo strict Freudian analysis they are subjected to rudeness and insults.
When someone refuses to converse with you, refuses to look you in the eye, refuses to answer your questions… he is being rude. He is treating you as worthless.
If that is true, then Almeida’s research shows that psychoanalysis cannot make you stronger or healthier. In fact, it will do just the opposite.
And now, Kelly Clarkson gets the last word: