Discovering What Really Matters

How adversity can be transformational.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

As the people of the world come to terms with the reality of the pandemic and make adjustments to their daily routines, they may find themselves starting to reflect on what really matters to them.

Things that seemed so important yesterday may barely register today as our attention shifts to issues of life and death. I’ve seen this phenomenon before as someone who has studied the psychology of trauma and listened to many stories of people who have encountered a life-threatening illness, a harrowing natural disaster, or a horrific accident, and who have then gone on to tell of how it was a transformational turning point in their lives.

Such stories seem to point to the truth of Nietzsche’s dictum: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But can adversity really make us stronger?  

Maybe stronger is not the right word, but adversity can certainly wake us up to what really matters. Adversity can propel us to become more true to ourselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a different perspective. Decades of research by psychologists into the phenomenon of posttraumatic growth has shown this. Research shows that survivors of traumatic events, who may still be deeply traumatized, will also often report some forms of positive change in their lives afterward.

One of the most striking findings is that the people who report the most growth are not those who are most resistant to the effects of trauma but, rather, those who are psychologically shaken up by it.

This is not to welcome adversity or to look forward to the immense suffering and loss that many have, or will, experience; but just to recognize that things will change. It is entirely possible that the current crisis that we all face will help us to look deeply within ourselves to reappraise our lives and what really matters and awaken us to new and more meaningful lives in some way.

To do this it is helpful to maintain a hopeful outlook as best we can, to look after ourselves and others, keep our connections with each strong, accept that change is part of life, and avoid seeing the crisis as insurmountable.

Perhaps it will be about discovering resources in ourselves that we were not aware of, or looking more appreciatively at our relationships with others, re-balancing our time between work and leisure, finding new priorities, or discovering new ideas about how society can function. I feel confident that, for many of us, we can be hopeful of such changes to come in our lives.

References

Joseph, S. (2011). What Doesn't Kill Us. The new psychology of posttraumatic growth.  Basic Books. New York.