Do we actually grow from adversity?

"That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"?

do we grow from adversity
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In our culture, there's this idea that enduring a tragedy can be good for your personal growth. You'll have a newfound appreciation for life.


You'll be grateful for your friends and family. You'll learn from the experience. You'll become more resilient.

This theme appears in media coverage, time and again, in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

But what does the science say?

Is there actually value in pain and suffering? Was philosopher Frederich Nietzsche onto something when he said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"?

A powerful narrative

As psychologists, we've been studying this question for the better part of the last decade.

We're not the first to grapple with these questions. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about how, after experiencing loss or trauma, people reported feeling a greater appreciation for life, closer to their friends and family, stronger, more spiritual and more inspired. They dubbed this phenomenon “post-traumatic growth."

The appeal of this finding is obvious. It shows there's a silver lining to tragedy. It's also consistent with the biblical theme of redemption, which says that all pain and suffering will ultimately lead to freedom.

The findings also help us make sense of our own lives. Psychologists have demonstrated that we like to narrate our lives in terms of the challenges we've confronted and the setbacks we've overcome. We like to believe good things can emerge from a bad turn of events because it's often a key element of the stories we tell about our own lives.

How can you predict a traumatic event?

The cultural narrative of "growth from adversity" might sound compelling.

But our own examination of the existing research on the topic identified some red flags.

For one, it's difficult to collect data on people before and after they've experienced trauma. For example, there's no way of knowing who's going to lose their home in a hurricane.

For this reason, most research on post-traumatic growth has asked people to estimate how much they've changed as a result of their trauma. While this might seem like a sensible way to assess personal growth – you might ask this question of a friend or even yourself – there are significant problems with this approach.

Studies have found that people aren't very good at accurately remembering what they were like before a traumatic event. Or participants will say they've grown from the event when, in fact, they're still struggling. Their reports of growth don't always match what their friends and family think and may not reflect actual changes in their behaviors.

Telling others that you've grown might actually be a way to cope with the pain you're still experiencing. Western culture permits little time to grieve; eventually, the expectation is that people are supposed to "get over it and move on."

That pressure may even be embedded in the test itself; the questions typically used by trauma researchers tend to ask only about positive changes – whether the person has a newfound appreciation for their life, has pursued new goals or has become more religious. An expectation of recovery and self-improvement is baked into this line of questioning. In other cases, people may simply report that they've become stronger because they're in denial about the actual pain that they are experiencing.

Yet the best-designed studies examining growth have found that how much people believed they had changed following a traumatic experience was not associated with how much they actually changed over time.

In fact, those who reported that they had experienced the most personal growth in the wake of a tragedy were more likely to be still experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The jury's still out

In many ways, it's problematic to embrace the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity.

Think about what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven't.

But moving on from a tragedy isn't easy. Sometimes, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse, never fully goes away.

And then there are those who are open about the fact that they're struggling after a loss months, even years later. If "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" were true, these people might be viewed as "weak," or seen as having something "wrong" with them.

Here's what we do know from the best science that's been done: People can indeed grow from adversity. They can become stronger, improve the quality of their relationships and increase their self-esteem. But it probably doesn't happen nearly as often as most people and some researchers believe.

What's more, not everyone will grow in the same way and at the same speed. People will continue to need the help and social support of their families, friends and communities in the wake of a traumatic event. The availability of these resources actually play a big role in determining whether people do, in fact, grow.

Nor should growth be thought of as a goal for everyone. For many people, just getting back to where they were before the trauma may be an ambitious enough goal.

While it's certainly possible for adversity to lead to new insights and wisdom, science is still unclear about the "when" and "how."

Stories of growth stemming from trauma are certainly powerful. They can serve as inspiration for our own lives. But we need to do better research to know whether such stories are the norm or the exception.

Eranda Jayawickreme, Associate Professor of Psychology, Wake Forest University and Frank J. Infurna, Associate Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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