The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is the concept of Duhkha. Traditionally translated as “suffering,” it is the fundamental unhappiness, stress, and pain of everyday life and one of the three marks of existence. Over time, tragedy becomes unavoidable. No matter how privileged or blessed, our lives are destined to be touched by a traumatic event at some point. It is also true that every event in our lives, every choice we make, every moment we live presents an opportunity for growth. Positive experiences lay the groundwork for who we are in mind and spirit. It is through lived experience that we grow. Invariably, trauma changes us as well…but it need not be for the worse.
Karen Guggenheim, Co-Founder of the World Happiness Summit® and CEO of WOHASU®, has been speaking since 2016 on the topic of posttraumatic growth. Karen lost her husband to the flu, which took his life in just ten days, an experience now being shared by many as we endure the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After this sudden loss, she turned her life and career down a new path. Her personal tragedy galvanized her mission to make the case for happiness and promote tools and policies that help people, organizations, and communities thrive. Today, she dedicates her life to promoting the science behind wellbeing inspiring others with her own story about growing post-trauma and rebuilding a happy, healthy life. The latest research developments in posttraumatic growth are centered around how we have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. As lives and businesses have been upended, many people are sharing the positive changes they have made in their lives during this long-term, slow-motion crisis, reprioritizing what’s most important and choosing flexibility over income and advancement.
PTSD is Not the Default
While we instinctively assume PTSD naturally follows a traumatic event, studies show that most people do not develop that condition after something terrible happens. In fact, a significant number of people report growth from the experience, which can be personal, spiritual, and emotional. This does not mean that the traumatic event was not painful and difficult overcome.
In the mid-1990s, Psychology professors and researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “posttraumatic growth,” defining it as “the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is the kind of growth we cannot control, nor can we choose to have or not. Trauma is disruptive, forcing us to evaluate our worldview, our goals, our hopes. Trauma shatters our perceptions, forcing us to rebuild both ourselves and our world.
Psychological studies indicate that resilience—the ability of people to maintain relatively stable physical and mental health following life-threatening or traumatic events—is far more common than previously perceived. Further, we can acquire the skills to become more resilient through training.
Surveys have shown that over 61% of men and 51% of women in the US report at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Tedeschi and Calhoun’s work demonstrated that at least a half and as many as two-thirds of survivors experience posttraumatic growth.
Their work highlights seven distinct areas in which adversity triggers enhanced growth:
- For many people, posttraumatic growth can manifest as a greater appreciation of life.
- People report a strengthening of relationships
- Posttraumatic growth can manifest in increased altruism and compassion
- People feel a renewed sense of purpose in life
- People find they are more aware of their personal strengths and find it easier to tap into them
- Spiritual people often experience enhanced spiritual development
- Some find they have grown creatively
As many as 90 percent of survivors report at least one of these aspects of posttraumatic growth.
What is the mechanism behind this ability to turn trauma into an opportunity? Is it loss, or the prospect of death, that forces us to see the value of what’s at stake in our lives?
How Does One Grow from Trauma?
While researchers are still studying the phenomenon, Tedeschi and Calhoun believe that two personality traits are tied to the likelihood of experiencing posttraumatic growth. Extraverts, who are more likely to pursue connections and actively respond to trauma, and those open to new experiences, who are more likely to reevaluate their worldview and belief systems, are both more likely to respond to a traumatic event with personal growth.
Another factor that allows people to absorb tragedy and use it as a tool for personal growth is how someone explores their thoughts and feelings surrounding what happened. It is natural to reflect on a traumatic event. We relive and reimagine our actions, thoughts, and feelings over and over. This is part of the process through which we try and make sense of what happened.
As we go through this process, our rehashing of events is not entirely within our control. Rumination starts out automatic, repetitive, and intrusive. But over time, our thoughts fall under our control. Our thoughts and feelings about the event become more organized, and we begin to deliberately think about the event, rather than those thoughts just coming upon us. This process, combined with a robust support system and healthy avenues of expression, is how we harness our strength and compassion and is beneficial and necessary to growth.
In a very real way, trauma tears you apart. The event upends your world, your beliefs, and your identity. A necessary part of recovery is building a new framework within which you can live and grow. You are creating a new life, remaking your identity, now that your previous one has been destroyed.
Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it this way: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” No one wants tragedy to befall them, and in no way do studies indicate that growth resulting from trauma is more productive than growth from positive events. Positive life experiences result in the most significant growth for individuals. However, what is important to remember is that the end result of trauma need not be a damaged psyche and debilitating emotional disorders.
This ability to turn adversity into an advantage is a vital psychological process that evolved as a necessary part of our growth. When it appears that we are at our lowest point, our opportunities for improving our wellbeing are still effective. Posttraumatic growth can be painful and difficult but provides us with an avenue for positive transformation even in the darkest of times.
Next year’s World Happiness Summit® will take place in Miami from March 18th through the 20th, 2022, and the theme is resilience. For the first time, WOHASU will coincide with the International Day of Happiness, celebrated on March 20th. Coming back to reconnect with ourselves and each other after what has happened to our lives, our communities, and the world is a first step towards embracing the new world we enter. Together, we can share the lessons of the last two years and demonstrate how we have grown even through great loss and challenge.