You’ve lost your job or lost your girlfriend or lost your mind. But you’re stronger afterwards when you get a better job, a more mature girlfriend, or a healthier mental attitude. Maybe you’ve even grown spiritually.
But are people really stronger psychologically after significant suffering? In relevant research, participants believed that their adversity had positive personal results; but, post trauma, their anxiety and distress actually increased. Why?
There’s a well-established American trope that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” An example is the super-hero movie, in which the hero has to overcome some set-back or adversity before he can continue his career. But when real people suffer some personal reverse, they often don’t feel stronger. They feel anxious because they haven’t experienced strength after adversity; they are distressed because they haven’t met the American expectation that there’s “gain from pain.” So, they lie—both to themselves and the researcher. “Yes, I’m a better person,” they say.
However, there’s a subset of people in this research who really have changed significantly. Perhaps they’ve acquired a new attitude toward life or a new way to frame and cope with misfortune. Perhaps they’ve discovered a new spirituality. What’s the difference between people who are somehow transformed and people who remain the same?
Well, the difference lies in how the personal calamity is processed. Those who are genuinely transformed have reflected on their personal setback. They’ve asked themselves what meaning the adversity might have in their lives. They’ve consciously thought about what happened to them.
And that’s the Quaker way, isn’t it? Friends center down and allow the Inner Light to illuminate their suffering. They search for meaning, even in the sorrows of life. Friends have the spiritual tools necessary to realize some gain from pain.
(My article is based on an episode from the Hidden Brain podcast: What We Gain from Pain.)
~ Richard Russell
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