Why Negative Experiences Can Lead to Profound Growth

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 12, 2020
why negative experiences can help us flourish

Many of us struggle when trying to envision the paths in life that are available to us. One particularly salient example of this is the fact that when soldiers are heading to combat, psychologists often tell them they will return either “normal” or with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

What this does is give these soldiers a mental map with only two paths—normalcy and psychic distress. While PTSD is, of course, a well-documented and serious consequence of war, another large body of research proves the existence of a third, far better path: post-traumatic growth. 

Bereavement, bone marrow transplantation, breast cancer, chronic illness, heart attack, military combat, natural disaster, physical assault, refugee displacement. This might read like a list of the worst things that can befall us. But it also happens to be a list of events researchers have found to spur profound growth in many individuals. Psychologists have termed this experience post-traumatic growth. 

Over the past two decades, psychologist Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., has made studying post-traumatic growth his mission. Tedeschi is the first to admit that the concept is nothing new—surely you’ve heard the maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But, Tedeschi says, only in the past 25 years or so has this topic been truly researched from a scientific perspective. 

Thanks to Tedeschi’s research, we can say for certain (not just anecdotally) that great suffering or trauma can lead to great positive change across a wide range of experiences. 

Of course, this isn’t true for everybody. So what distinguishes the people who find growth in these experiences from those who don’t? There are myriad mechanisms involved, and not surprisingly, mindset takes center stage. People’s ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt. The strategies that most often lead to post-traumatic growth are positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism and acceptance. 

As one set of researchers explain, “it appears that it is not the type of event per se that influences post-traumatic growth, but rather the subjective experience of the event.” In other words, the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened. 

Read next: 3 Ways to Turn Adversity Into an Inspired State of Mind

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @Angel_Eyes/Twenty20.com

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.