What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger? Or Does It?
An interview with Dr. Ward Davis on post-traumatic growth after crises.
Posted May 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Adversity and crisis can change a lot about people, especially their spiritual and psychological wellbeing. But how exactly does this change occur and how does it relate to our connection with others?
Edward (Ward) B. Davis, Psy.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, where he serves as the Director of the Psychology and Spirituality Research Lab and the Director of Research for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Ward is a clinical psychologist who has published extensively on the topics of religion, spirituality, positive psychology, clinical practice, and humanitarian crises. He received the 2020 Margaret Gorman Early Career Award within Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
WD: This study looks at whether and how people change spiritually following adversity. Like most people, I’ve experienced my own fair share of adversity—whether it’s struggling in my personal life, my work, or my family. During those times, like a lot of folks, I turn to my faith to help navigate whatever it is that I or my family is going through. For most struggles, the intensity of it settles down after a while. Once it does, I often look back on it and tell others (and myself!), “That was really hard, but it helped me grow”—whether that’s spiritually, emotionally, relationally, or whatever.
Because I’m a researcher, I wanted to see how accurate that type of after-the-fact reflection is. For example, if I took a spiritual well-being survey right before experiencing a particular adversity and then took the same survey a few times after it, would my spiritual well-being truly have increased? Or, after the fact would I just think it had increased, maybe as a way to help me cope with how hard everything had been?
That was the question my colleagues and I set out to explore.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
WD: We decided to study people who were experiencing a particular type of adversity—a devastating natural disaster. Hurricane Irma (2017) was the strongest hurricane the U.S. had faced since Hurricane Katrina (2005). It tore through most of the Caribbean islands, causing catastrophic damage. In the days leading up to its landfall in Florida, we collaborated with a meteorologist and surveyed Florida residents who lived in the hurricane’s most likely path.
We asked around 2,000 people to complete several measures online. They answered surveys about various aspects of their spirituality and their mental health. Then we asked them to complete the same measures one month and six months after the disaster.
What was unique about this study was that we were able to survey people before the disaster hit. Most research on disasters (and other types of adversity) is only conducted after the fact—once the disaster or adverse event has already happened. Mostly that’s because it is really difficult to predict when adversity will strike and whom it will affect. The problem with that is that you don’t have a baseline to which to compare people’s responses and their change over time.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
WD: We found people weren’t very accurate in reporting how much they had grown spiritually from their disaster-related adversity. When they looked back after the fact, they often thought they had grown spiritually. But when you compared their answers to their baseline levels, the overwhelming majority hadn’t changed much. Only around 5% of people showed genuine spiritual growth. In fact, most people actually demonstrated spiritual decline.
One interesting finding was the amount of genuine spiritual growth people experienced was linked to the amount of psychological growth they evidenced. In other words, people’s psychological growth was connected to how much actual spiritual growth they experienced. Their perceived spiritual growth wasn’t. So how much people thought they had grown spiritually wasn’t relevant to increases in their psychological well-being. But how much they actually had grown spiritually was.
It’s important to note that we can’t infer causality here. We don’t know whether actual spiritual growth causes increased psychological well-being—or vice versa. We just know that increases in psychological well-being seem to be linked to how much people experience genuine spiritual growth.
Of course, there’s a need for other researchers to replicate these findings before we can state any of these conclusions more definitively.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
WD: We’re all familiar with Nietzsche’s famous claim, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This idea is so thoroughly embedded in contemporary thought that it’s often just uncritically assumed to be true. I guess what surprised me was how much that doesn’t seem to be the case. The disaster survivors in our study didn’t get “stronger” spiritually. Quite to the contrary, they tended to show spiritual decline.
And that’s actually similar to what lots of other studies have shown. Researchers have found that adversity doesn’t usually affect people’s spirituality, meaning in life, or personality to any meaningful degree. It may even lead to declines in some areas, such as their self-esteem.
But there’s at least one positive change that adversity consistently leads to—better relationships. So what doesn’t kill us might not make us stronger as individuals, but it makes us stronger relationally. It deepens and strengthens our bonds with friends and family members. Adversity might not make me stronger, but it probably will make us stronger.
So in a way, Nietzsche might have been right all along. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger—relationally speaking, that is.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?
WD: First of all, if you’re a religious or spiritual person, by all means, continue to rely on your faith to help you navigate adversity. There’s an enormous amount of research evidence that religion/spirituality can and does help people cope effectively—in ways that promote their health and resilience. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Nevertheless, try to put effort into actually growing spiritually, rather than just thinking you’re growing, simply because you’re struggling. Actively cultivate your spiritual life. Engage in spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. Nurture sacred connections with friends, family members, and God. Participate in a faith community. Trying to grow spiritually will probably help you grow psychologically too—and vice versa.
Finally, try to cultivate a humble view of yourself and your struggles. Like most people, you probably aren’t that good at accurately tracking how much you’re genuinely growing. Ask loved ones to give you feedback along the way. Invite them to point out ways they’ve noticed you growing—spiritually and otherwise. Request concrete examples so it can help you recognize genuine growth. Also invite them to give you suggestions for how you might continue to grow in the midst of your situation.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?
WD: One way you can use these research findings to help others is by doing what you can to support people’s spiritual and psychological growth in the midst of whatever adversity they are facing. Give them the type of feedback and suggestions I just mentioned. Encourage them when you notice growth. Support them in their efforts to cope.
Along with that, recognize the most likely way people will grow from their struggles is in their relationships. Support them in efforts to connect more meaningfully and vulnerably with the loved ones in their lives. That’s one of the most tangible ways you can help people grow through whatever adversity they are experiencing.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
WD: Recently, two friends (Everett Worthington and Sarah Schnitker) and I began collaborating on a book project I’m really excited about. We’re working with Springer Publishing to coedit the Handbook of Positive Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. This book is scheduled to be published in 2022 and will bring together experts who focus on positive psychology (the study and promotion of human strengths, virtues, and flourishing) and how that intersects with people’s religion/spirituality.
Davis, E. B., Van Tongeren, D. R., McElroy-Heltzel, S. E., Davis, D. E., Rice, K. G., Hook, J. N., Aten, J. D., Park, C. L., Shannonhouse, L., & Lemke, A. W. (2019). Perceived and actual posttraumatic growth in religiousness and spirituality following disasters. Journal of Personality. Advance online publication: https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12537
This study was supported by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.