Several years ago, I spent a lot of time doing charitable organizing work. I accomplished what I set out to do, but it got stressful at times because it was an ambitious project with only a small number of people, and we had to deal with detractors and negativity. In a recent conversation, this question came up: Did I “win” because I reached my goals? Or did I “lose” because I felt more stressed afterward?
Goals aren’t everything—they have to be considered with a view to the big picture. Getting stressed past one’s tolerance and soldiering on anyway is neither virtuous nor sensible. On rare occasion it may be necessary; but more often, it can and should be avoided through better decision-making.
That said, it also doesn’t make sense to run away from anything that might cause stress and bad memories. We can’t reasonably expect to have all good times and no worries. Friendships and relationships go through bad patches, work sometimes gets harder than usual, and becoming a parent means not only great joy but also great responsibility.
So I wouldn’t measure either winning or losing by a simple comparison of past vs. present feelings of stress or accomplishment. Such feelings do not necessarily mean that it would (or wouldn’t) have been better to do something else. There are many other factors to consider, and the question should go something like this: How would my present-day life, and the lives of my family and others, have been different if I had made another choice?
At that point we get into the realm of alternate history, with infinite permutations. For instance, would leaving a marriage to avoid the stress and bad memories of arguments have resulted in finding someone more compatible and living happily ever after, or would it have meant many depressing years of loneliness? Who can say? No matter what might have happened, there’s no way to go back and do it over, and future events are likely to change what’s on the scorecard anyway.
What’s important to keep in mind going forward is that experience teaches valuable lessons. If one of those lessons is that a high stress level was more damaging than it seemed at the time, that’s useful to know—it means that we now understand the value of setting healthier boundaries and creating calmer and more nurturing environments for ourselves. It certainly doesn’t mean we ought to kick ourselves around for being losers! Better to look at past experiences as a win* even if they were stressful.
*That is, with a life-lessons asterisk.