Posted on March 29, 2021 · Posted in Blog, General, Memo Plus Gold, Personal

Suffering is universal, albeit manifested in different ways and to different extents. As we cope with struggles in our own lives and witness other people’s struggles unfold in the news, a common response is to search for an underlying significance that might make our devastation more bearable. This process of making meaning out of misery can be beneficial. For example, cancer patients who derive meaning from their medical experiences have a greater psychological adjustment. Likewise, following the death of a family member, people who make sense of their loss and even find benefits in it experience less  distress.

Five positive changes signal post-traumatic growth and provide a useful framework for how to make the best out of the worst situations. The first is personal strength. Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. For instance, a car crash survivor reported that the incident motivated her to take charge of her life with greater determination and willpower. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.

The second is relationships. Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making. For instance, women emerging from an intimate partner’s violence undergo more growth if they discuss their abuse with a role model. Suffering may also prompt us to be more compassionate toward others: A study out of Yale and MIT showed that survivors of violence felt more empathy for Liberian refugees and therefore acted more altruistically, such as by hosting the refugees in their homes.

The third way to grow from trauma is through greater life appreciation. Tragedy can shift our perspective, inspire us to value good things more, and renew our intention to make the most of our lives. One approach to focusing on gratitude is to sit down once a week and write a list of things for which you are grateful from the week prior. Researchers found that this exercise was linked to higher life satisfaction, more optimism, and fewer health complaints. Another strategy is to savour and fully enjoy the things that bring us joy, such as a hot mug of coffee, the sunset, or spending time with a friend.

The fourth is beliefs, which may change or be reinforced as a result of grief. As researchers explain, people may evolve existentially to see themselves and their role in the world differently or to feel a new spiritual connection, which can influence their sense of purpose or their faith, respectively. For instance, religious parents whose child is diagnosed with cancer might understand their struggle as God’s will, consistent with their previous beliefs. Conversely, they may question whether God exists at all, thereby challenging their previous beliefs. Research suggests that individuals benefit from attempting to reconstruct or reaffirm their sense of meaning in this way.

Lastly, the fifth positive change is new possibilities. In the aftermath of trauma, people may perceive that new opportunities are available and pursue them. Consider a man who gets fired, feels ashamed and depressed, but soon after starts working on what he is truly passionate about, which was not possible at his former job. One method of identifying new possibilities is to envision your ideal life in the future and strategize about bringing that vision to fruition. A study showed that people felt significantly happier after spending twenty minutes each day for four days writing about their imagined best possible selves or planning their goals. Additionally, this activity can increase optimism.

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