How to deal with disappointment

3 minute read


2020 was nothing if not topsy turvy. Trying to run a business through that year was an exercise in real leadership. After all, any monkey can run a firm when things are good, but true leadership is required when the piggy bank is empty, customers locked away and HBR articles only good as notepaper. More than anything, it is a test of character, that old-fashioned virtue.

Here in NZ most businesses have survived, some thrived and some died. And a friend of mine demonstrated how character shines through. During the initial pandemic lockdown, he watched revenues in his consulting business fall 80%. Having to navigate the quick decisions (exit leases, make some staff redundant, hunt for any work at all) he faced an unexpected cancer diagnosis and the prolonged, painful treatment that followed. He had been trying to buy a new home in a housing boom, only to be pipped at the post again and again.


And through it all, he keeps telling me how grateful he is.


When he missed out on the third house, he was disappointed, but within a day had turned the experience around, listing the good things about not getting it: “I’ve still got the bank approval; it didn’t have the bath I like; I won’t need to do the extra commute”.

Although his business tumbled, he is proud it’s surviving, and the goal is to break even by the March 2021 financial year. His staff have proved fiercely loyal.

My friend is a living example of how to deal with disappointments well. He is decidedly not a Pollyanna – a cancer diagnosis certainly is nobody’s idea of good news – and most certainly acknowledges the tough emotions of the last 12 months, fear, sadness, loss of control, frustration and all out “it’s not fair”. But through his treatment he focussed on what he could control and constantly reminded himself that pain was temporary. He went for slow walks with friends when he could and focussed on appreciating the beautiful things right in front of him.


Psychology studies have shown that the way we make sense of adverse events has a huge impact on our experience of them. Optimists tend to see bad things as temporary rather than permanently ruining their lives. They don’t take things personally. And they don’t let them colour all of their experience, treating the bad things as specific to the one event, rather than impacting everything. In contrast, pessimists interpret setbacks as ongoing (“it will always be like this”), deeply personal (“I’m having a worse time than anyone else”), and global (“everything’s gone bad for me”).

Holding optimism is linked with better physical and mental health, and this thinking style can be learned. Certainly negative thinking habits can be broken. Shifting to an optimistic style includes acknowledging negative emotions, not ignoring them. For leaders (as my friend did) that means saying to staff “This is really hard right now and while it’s hard to see life getting better, we are going to stick to our plan and take it one day at time”. Contrast that with the deluded positivity of Boris Johnson telling the UK all will be fine, while the death toll mounts and the UK lurches deeper into a health crisis.

To start the shift for yourself, evidence shows that better understanding your personality will provide insight to your style and clues to help you change. For example, people who are passionate more than they are emotionally stable are much more prone to notice negative events and pay attention to what can go wrong, whereas emotionally stable people will glide over life’s bumps. Those of us who are outgoing more than reserved tend to draw on social supports when times get tough. And finally people who are disciplined and driven are much more likely to show grit and persevere through hard times.

Alongside understanding your personality better, science clearly demonstrates we can learn to change your approach to disappointment. As with any behaviour change or skill, practice is key. Try these simple steps out:

  • Pay close attention to people who stay on the sunnier side of life. Notice what they say and do, and how they explain disappointments to themselves. Quiz them for their strategies and then steal them for yourself.
  • Observe your own approach when navigating daily upsets by using the personal /specific /temporary lens.
  • With smaller bumps in the road, try saying “this too will pass” and at the same time comment to someone on the small things that are going well.
  • Deliberately plan experiences that brighten your mood – positive emotions in the moment bring on physiological changes that can boost your optimism.

To change thinking styles the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, advocated pursuing three paths: amplify positive emotions and try to make your life more pleasant; work to discover your highest strengths and reshape your life and work to make the most of them; and find a purpose or cause that is larger than your own existence – family, faith, humanity, nature or discovery. Find out more here.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Griffin,