By Kat McGowan, published on March 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Hurricanes, house fires, cancer, white-water rafting accidents, plane crashes, vicious attacks in dark alleyways. Nobody asks for any of it. But to their surprise, many people find that enduring such a harrowing ordeal ultimately changes them for the better. Their refrain might go something like this: "I wish it hadn't happened, but I'm a better person for it."
We love to hear the stories of people who have been transformed by their tribulations, perhaps because they testify to a bona fide psychological truth, one that sometimes gets lost amid endless reports of disaster: There is a built-in human capacity to flourish under the most difficult circumstances. Positive reactions to profoundly disturbing experiences are not limited to the toughest or the bravest. In fact, roughly half the people who struggle with adversity say that their lives have in some ways improved.
This and other promising findings about the life-changing effects of crises are the province of the new science of post-traumatic growth. This fledgling field has already proved the truth of what once passed as bromide: What doesn't kill you can actually make you stronger. Post-traumatic stress is far from the only possible outcome. In the wake of even the most terrifying experiences, only a small proportion of adults become chronically troubled. More commonly, people rebound—or even eventually thrive.
Those who weather adversity well are living proof of one of the paradoxes of happiness: We need more than pleasure to live the best possible life. Our contemporary quest for happiness has shriveled to a hunt for bliss—a life protected from bad feelings, free from pain and confusion.
This anodyne definition of well-being leaves out the better half of the story, the rich, full joy that comes from a meaningful life. It is the dark matter of happiness, the ineffable quality we admire in wise men and women and aspire to cultivate in our own lives. It turns out that some of the people who have suffered the most, who have been forced to contend with shocks they never anticipated and to rethink the meaning of their lives, may have the most to tell us about that profound and intensely fulfilling journey that philosophers used to call the search for "the good life."
This broader definition of good living blends deep satisfaction and a profound connection to others through empathy. It is dominated by happy feelings but seasoned also with nostalgia and regret. "Happiness is only one among many values in human life," contends Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Compassion, wisdom, altruism, insight, creativity—sometimes only the trials of adversity can foster these qualities, because sometimes only drastic situations can force us to take on the painful process of change. To live a full human life, a tranquil, carefree existence is not enough. We also need to grow—and sometimes growing hurts.
In a dark room in Queens, New York, 31-year-old fashion designer Tracy Cyr believed she was dying. A few months before, she had stopped taking the powerful immune-suppressing drugs that kept her arthritis in check. She never anticipated what would happen: a withdrawal reaction that eventually left her in total body agony and neurological meltdown. The slightest movement—trying to swallow, for example—was excruciating. Even the pressure of her cheek on the pillow was almost unbearable.
Cyr is no wimp—diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 2, she'd endured the symptoms and the treatments (drugs, surgery) her whole life. But this time, she was way past her limits, and nothing her doctors did seemed to help. Either the disease was going to kill her or, pretty soon, she'd have to kill herself.
As her sleepless nights wore on, though, her suicidal thoughts began to be interrupted by new feelings of gratitude. She was still in agony, but a new consciousness grew stronger each night: an awesome sense of liberation, combined with an all-encompassing feeling of sympathy and compassion. "I felt stripped of everything I'd ever identified myself with," she said six months later. "Everything I thought I'd known or believed in was useless—time, money, self-image, perceptions. Recognizing that was so freeing."
Within a few months, she began to be able to move more freely, thanks to a cocktail of steroids and other drugs. But as her physical strength came back, she did not return to her old way of being as a feisty, demanding, "Sex-in-the-City, three-inch-stilettos-and-fishnets" girl. Now quieter and more tolerant, she makes a point of being submissive in a turn-the-other-cheek kind of way. Cyr still takes a pharmacopoeia of drugs every day, but she says there's no question that her life is better now. "I felt I had been shown the secret of life and why we're here: to be happy and to nurture other life. It's that simple."
Her mind-blowing experience came as a total surprise. But that feeling of transformation is in some ways typical, says Rich Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte who coined the term "post-traumatic growth." His studies of people who have endured extreme events like combat, violent crime or sudden serious illness show that most feel dazed and anxious in the immediate aftermath. They are preoccupied with the idea that their lives have been shattered. A few are haunted long afterward by memory problems, sleep trouble and similar symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Tedeschi and others have found that for many people—perhaps even the majority—life ultimately becomes richer and more gratifying.
Sometimes, as with Cyr, the change hits like a bolt of lightning. W. Keith Campbell, a professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia in Athens whose research focuses on the self, calls this phenomenon "ego shock." He has found that a serious blow to self-esteem can temporarily freeze normal psychological protective mechanisms. The way we react to a sudden ego threat (a public rejection, a professional failure) is often to go numb: Just for an instant, time stops, the mind goes blank and the world suddenly seems unfamiliar.
Campbell believes something similar happens to many people who experience a terrifying physical threat. In that moment, our sense of invulnerability is pierced, and the self-protective mental armor that normally stands between us and our perceptions of the world is torn away. Our everyday life scripts—our habits, self-perceptions and assumptions—go out the window, and we're left with a raw experience of the world.
The phenomenon is akin to what Zen Buddhists strive to attain in meditation or what people report about religious rapture. Colors become more vivid; ordinary objects seem suddenly beautiful. It's an experience of sublime bewilderment tinged with fear—the old-fashioned meaning of awe. "When you take the self out of the picture, sometimes the world emerges as more powerful, as wondrous," he says. "It's this opening experience: 'Oh my god, look at this world.'"
In her moment of desperation, Tracy Cyr was struck by this feeling of euphoria. "You see the truth of things, and you can't help but be in wonder, in glorious wonder," she says. "Everything is OK. Everything is perfect and good. There's absolutely nothing to fear."
After such a shock, people often say that their lives are transformed involuntarily and that their old values or habits evaporate in an instant. Campbell found that more than half of the people in his studies who had experienced an ego shock said that it ultimately had positive long-term effects upon their lives. "Really negative events have the ability to shake up the status quo in your life, which opens the door for change," says Campbell. "You could become a depressed, despairing drunk—or you could become a much better person."
Still, actually implementing these changes, as well as fully coming to terms with the new reality, usually takes conscious effort. Being willing and able to take on this process is one of the major differences between those who grow through adversity and those who are destroyed by it.
Crises challenge our deepest beliefs: that bad things don't happen to good people, that life makes sense, that we have control over what happens. Tedeschi describes them as seismic, because they overturn basic assumptions upon which life is built. Afterward, a new framework must be constructed. "That's no small thing," he observes. "It requires some people to make big changes not only in how they think but in what they do and in how they choose to live." Brooding over what happened—in other circumstances a dangerous warning sign of depression—may actually be essential to the process of growth.
Notably, the people who find value in adversity aren't the toughest or the most rational. Instead, they tend to be ordinary—neither the best- nor the worst-adjusted. What makes them different is that they are able to incorporate what happened into the story of their own life. They are willing to undertake the painful process of rethinking who they are and giving up an old script that no longer applies. "Maybe one of the keys [to growth] is the capacity to admit that you've been changed by experience," says King. "Which means admitting that you're vulnerable, and admitting that there would have been good things about your life if you hadn't had to go through those negative events."
Eventually, they may find themselves freed in ways they never imagined. Survivors often say they become more tolerant and forgiving of others, capable of bringing peace to formerly troubled relationships. They say that material ambitions suddenly seem silly and the pleasures of friends and family paramount—and that the crisis allowed them to reorganize life in line with the new priorities.
For Arizona senator John McCain, a terrible experience gave him one lasting benefit: confidence in his own priorities. Captured in the Vietnam War, he spent five years as a prisoner of war, enduring torture and solitary confinement. 30 years later, he has a reputation as a maverick who is willing to take a stand. "In my case, what made life easier is that I now know the difference between what's important and what isn't," he says. "That is a gift: having the confidence to know that you clearly see the difference between right and wrong, between principle and pragmatism." His book Character Is Destiny profiles a procession of historical figures—from Sojourner Truth to Winston Churchill—who he believes exemplify this quality.
People who have grown from adversity often feel much less fear, despite the frightening things they've been through. They are surprised by their own strength, confident that they can handle whatever else life throws at them. Like Tracy Cyr, many also feel transformed by a sense of deep compassion for and connection to others that is intensely rewarding on its own.
"People don't say that what they went through was wonderful," says Tedeschi. "They weren't meaning to grow from it. They were just trying to survive. But in retrospect, what they gained was more than they ever anticipated."
Some researchers, among them psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University's Teachers College, suspect that post-traumatic growth may be primarily wishful thinking. He argues that resilience—the ability to return to normal after trauma—is commonplace, but suspects that people who say they've surpassed their old selves and changed for the better may be unconsciously trying to make the best of a terrible experience.
Growth through adversity "is a nice idea, but I don't see the data for it," Bonanno says. People may say that they've become better or happier, but "anyone who studies humans finds out that we often don't know how our own minds work. We do a lot of backpedaling."
Tedeschi counters that survivors aren't kidding themselves; on the contrary, they have become more acutely aware of the dangers of everyday life and less deluded about their own immunity to disaster. "These are not naïve people," he says. "They know now, based on what they've been through, how tough things can be."
Thankfully, true crises are rare. Most people go through only one in a lifetime, or maybe none at all. But extreme experiences have analogues in ordinary life. An overpowering but welcome change like a major promotion or religious conversion can provoke a milder version of the transformation that crises often initiate. As with a major ego threat, a positive change can loosen the sense of identity. "Any time a person is in that free-fall situation where the self isn't yet attached to what you're going to do next, there's a really good opportunity for personal growth," says King.
Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns contends that the need for experiencing this kind of rapturous limbo may be built into the brain. Berns, who studies the neurobiology of pleasure and motivation, says that because our brains respond to changes in inputs and information, we search for intense challenges; situations where the outcome is not yet known or even clear. He speculates that the feeling of satisfaction, which we all seek, is in part generated by the stress hormone cortisol's effects on the dopamine system. The upshot, he writes in his book Satisfaction: "The road to satisfying experiences must necessarily pass through the terrain of discomfort.
He points to extreme endurance athletes who push themselves to their physical limits for days at a time. They cycle through the same sequence of sensations as do trauma survivors: self-loss, confusion and, finally, a new sense of mastery. For ultramarathoners, who regularly run 100-mile races that last more than 24 hours, vomiting and hallucinating are normal. After a day and night of running without stopping or sleeping, competitors sometimes forget who they are and what they're doing.
But the feeling of mastering extraordinary difficulty makes up for it, reports Honolulu businessman Randy Havre. Havre, 51, found this feeling near the summit of Mauna Kea nearly 10 years ago. He was nearing the end of a 44-mile race that took him from sea level to the top of the volcano—a vertical ascent of 13,766 feet. He was on his way to setting the unofficial world record for that climb, but the high elevation was starting to get to him.
"When you get to about 10,000 feet, things tend to get a little weird because of the swelling and pressure on your brain," he says. "Above that, it gets exponentially weirder. I remember busting out crying at 12,000 feet. But if you can finish these things, you know: Hey, I can get through this stuff. You were able to hang in there, and you're stronger for that."
For a more common example of growth through adversity, look to one of life's biggest challenges: parenting. Having a baby has been shown to decrease levels of happiness. The sleep deprivation and the necessity of putting aside personal pleasures in order to care for an infant mean that people with newborns are more likely to be depressed and find their marriage on the rocks. Nonetheless, over the long haul, raising a child is one of the most rewarding and meaningful of all human undertakings. The short-term sacrifice of happiness is outweighed by other benefits, like satisfaction, altruism and the chance to leave a meaningful legacy.
Childrearing and family relationships do dual duty: They bring us joy, and they also push us to grow and develop. In psychologist Laura King's terms, they foster both happiness and ego development, which she has identified as the dual components of the good life. In this context, ego development essentially means the ability to think about life with complexity, to be self-reflective and introspective.
Plenty of people are mature, wise, lead meaningful lives—and are also miserable. (Think of Kierkegaard if you have any doubts.) Growth isn't an automatic ticket to the good life. But those who are both mature and happy are the ones who have tapped into the highest kind of human potential. Getting to that point may require coming to terms with some kind of loss. It might be severe, as in the case of a major life trauma, or relatively common—flunking out of school, having a marriage collapse.
In King's studies of parents of children with Down's Syndrome, those who scored highest on scales of both maturity and happiness were willing to admit that they had not been able to lead the life they'd always hoped for, and yet were fully committed to the life they currently led. They tended to have a self-deprecating sense of humor with a forgiving attitude about life. Many evince a bittersweet appreciation for their lost selves—a kind of nostalgia for who they once were and what they once believed life was all about.
"Some of these people are living what they thought of as the worst-case scenario," says King. "And it turns out to be their best possible life. There's enormous freedom when you find yourself outside of what you always expected to happen."
A balance between regret and contentment appears elsewhere as a hallmark of successful survival. Psychologist Jack Bauer, of Northern Arizona University, and Columbia's Bonanno interviewed people six months after they had lost a spouse in midlife and tallied the number of positive and negative comments each person made about the lost relationship. Those who initially generated about five upbeat remarks for each critical comment adapted best and were functioning most smoothly two years later. People who had only negative things to say were not doing so well—but neither were those with only positive assessments.
The widows and widowers who ultimately adjusted best to loss were those who could admit to the difficulty and sadness of the situation without being overwhelmed by it. "It's a growth-oriented attitude," says Bauer. "It allows you to take into consideration life's difficulties, while keeping in mind the rosier big picture."
The capacity to simultaneously embrace both loss and growth is an ordinary part of life—a complex, poignant emotional state that is perhaps the greatest reward of maturity. "Even positive memories of the past are bittersweet," says Laura King. "My little boy is now two years old, and I can already see his babyness slipping away. There's an incredible richness and warmth about those memories—but also sadness, knowing that they're tied to a particular time in your life and that you'll never have those experiences again."
Ultimately, that emotional reward can compensate for the pain and difficulty of adversity. This perspective does not cancel out what happened, but it puts it all in a different context: that it's possible to live an extraordinarily rewarding life even within the constraints and struggles we face. In some form or other, says King, we all must go through this realization. "You're not going to be the person you thought you were, but here's who you are going to be instead—and that turns out to be a pretty great life."