How often have you heard people say, after sustaining a major trauma, "It was terrible at the time, but it turned out for the best?" Can this really be true, or are they kidding themselves? Was it really a change for the better or just a rationalization to make them feel better?
What got me thinking along these lines was a decision to write a collection of stories about lessons I had learned from events in my life and in the lives of others I have known. On reflection, I realized that my most valuable lessons arose from difficulties and setbacks I had to confront, and imperfections I had to accept. Paradoxically, these adversities yielded unexpected gifts.
Before going any farther, I should emphasize the obvious: Adversity is in many ways undesirable -- like when dog bites man. At its worst, adversity can be paralyzing, disabling or even fatal. On the other hand, it is interesting to consider what Shakespeare called the sweet uses of adversity, comparing them to the precious jewel in the head of an ugly and venomous toad. Nietzsche agreed, famously declaring that, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Such observations led me to my latest book, The Gift of Adversity.
But anecdotes aside, was Nietzsche right? What does science have to say about the matter? In 2004, Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun of the University of North Carolina Charlotte defined a concept they called posttraumatic growth (PTG). They write that, "the frightening and confusing aftermath of trauma, where fundamental assumptions are severely challenged, can be fertile ground for unexpected outcomes that can be observed in survivors."
I can personally attest to the accuracy of their statement. Here is a description of how I felt, after I was stabbed, nearly to death.
As I recovered physically, a new urgency stirred inside me, or rather, it felt as though something entered me from the outside -- a force, a power, a drive -- that directed me to create, produce and reproduce. I was like someone swept along in the thrall of a post hypnotic suggestion. My senses were heightened for everything, including a powerful sense of time passing. I had enormous appreciation for being alive. I felt I had to do things with my life -- and quickly. I could relate to people who feel as though they have been born again.
Apparently this type of change is common, and Tedeschi and Calhoun emphasize that PTG is "a consequence of attempts to re-establish some useful basic cognitive guides for living." The field of PTG is part of the exciting new discipline of positive psychology in which researchers and clinicians strive to understand how to boost psychological health and happiness, not simply to reverse sorrow and distress.
Psychologist Mark Seery and colleagues analyzed data from a national survey and concluded that, "a history of some lifetime adversity predicted better mental health and psychological well-being than did a history of no adversity or high adversity." Seery's group followed up with a prospective study in which they assessed past history of adversity in 147 participants and then gave them two challenge tests: one negative -- having them plunge hands into ice cold water -- and one positive -- giving them an intelligence test. As with their earlier survey findings, the researchers observed that those people with intermediate histories of adversity showed more resilience on both tests than those at either extreme of the spectrum (no adversity or a high degree of adversity).
Such findings may lead us to conclude that Nietzsche was only partially correct, though it hardly improves the epigram to say, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger -- unless it almost kills you."
Studies like those of Seery and colleagues are undoubtedly important, but because they are confined to the laboratory and span just a short period, they probably underestimate the transformative powers of adversity -- how hardship toughens us, deepens our understanding of life and of ourselves and, in the end, leaves us with hard-earned wisdom -- the bittersweet fruit of adversity. It is that type of transformation that I have sought to capture and communicate in my new book The Gift of Adversity.
Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. Besides The Gift of Adversity, he has written the New York Times best-seller Transcendence, and Winter Blues. He maintains a website at www.normanrosenthal.com.
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