Post Traumatic Growth as Positive Personality Change
The idea that struggle, trauma and adversity can be a catalyst for positive outcomes has a long intellectual history. For example, in the context of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions, how can a loving deity allow suffering in the world? One response to this question has been to argue for the potential upsides to experiencing suffering and adversity. For example, St. Paul memorably noted that “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). Indeed, the belief that adversity, challenge, failure and even trauma can lead to positive changes in individuals has held great intuitive appeal for many people. The popular meme, “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is ubiquitous enough to be attributable to the popular musicians Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson or (originally) the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. More generally, icons such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are admired in part because they are seen to have who are seen to have triumphed over adversity in achieving laudable moral goals.
Scientists have referred to these changes as “altruism born of suffering,” “posttraumatic growth,” “stress-related growth,” or “benefit finding” (Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006). The most popular term for this belief is posttraumatic growth (PTG), and research and writing on PTG has exploded in the last 15 years, in particular as a result of the advent of positive psychology. Given the ubiquity of these beliefs, it is not surprising that there has been an explosion of interest in PTG among psychologists. However, this research program has proven to be controversial. Specifically, most research on this topic assesses positive retrospective changes individuals report following adversity as opposed to actual positive affective, cognitive and behavioral changes. Moreover, beliefs about growth may not be related to meaningful changes in behavior and may even lead to negative societal outcomes (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014; Infurna & Jayawickreme, 2019).
In short, the notion that adversity, trauma and suffering can lead to positive outcomes is an idea that is both intuitively compelling and scientifically problematic. My research aims to address the questions: How good is the quality of the research on post-traumatic growth ? In the current age of worries about replication and the credibility revolution in science, can we trust this research at all? Is the belief that one has benefited from adversity a reflection of real change in character, or does this belief instead represent a coping strategy that enables one to move on from failure and tragedy? Is it possible to do good science on a topic with such intuitive appeal? Why should we expect good outcomes from bad events? Are such beliefs culture-specific or religion-specific? Can the expectation that one should see the upside of adversity be oppressive, as some have argued?
We are currently conducting a systematic literature review to determine distinct conceptualizations of wisdom. In addition, the review aims to categorize components of wisdom into an integrative model and evaluate the empirical basis for each component. Eventually, we hope to provide an empirically backed up definition of wisdom and suggestions for further research.
Le Vy Phan, a visiting scholar from Humbolt University, Germany, is leading this project, which is funded by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.
Read a recent op-ed on post-traumatic growth here.
Listen to Eranda discussing post-traumatic growth on NPR’s Central Time here.