Christians aren’t the only ones who believe that good can come out of suffering. Harvard Professor Dr. Shawn Achor argues that Post-Traumatic Growth is as much a possibility as Post-Traumatic Stress.
For example, after the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, “psychologists found many residents experienced positive psychological growth. So too do the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancers.” (The Happiness Advantage, 109).
What kinds of positive growth? Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in their social relationships. (110)
That’s why some psychologists even recommend that we fail early in life! In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar says, “The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.”
Psychologists who have studied how people respond to trauma say that the key to profiting from pain is the story we tell ourselves when we are facing hard times. Optimistic story-tellers see difficulty as local and temporary (i.e. “it’s not so bad and it will get better”) whereas the pessimists see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., “It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.”).
Their beliefs then directly affect their actions; the ones who believe the latter statement sink into helplessness and stop trying, while the ones who believe the former are spurred on to higher performance. (The Happiness Advantage, 123)
Optimistic story tellers, do better in high school, are less likely to drop out of college, perform better in sports, and even recover faster from heart surgery. Pulling together the research on this subject, Achor argues:
Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth. Conversely, if we conceive of a fall as the worst thing in the world, it becomes just that. (108)
Post Traumatic Growth
One of the most remarkable illustrations of this is found in the growing body of research into post-traumatic growth (PTG) among military personnel. Until recently the focus and headlines have all been about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an emphasis that produces additional problems, as Dr. Martin Seligman explains:
If all a soldier knows about is PTSD, and not about resilience and growth, it creates a self-fulfilling downward spiral. Your buddy was killed yesterday in Afghanistan. Today you burst into tears, and you think, I’m falling apart; I’ve got PTSD; my life is ruined. These thoughts increase the symptoms of anxiety and depression—indeed, PTSD is a particularly nasty combination of anxiety and depression—which in turn increases the intensity of the symptoms. Merely knowing that bursting into tears is not a symptom of PTSD but a symptom of normal grief and mourning, usually followed by resilience, helps to put the brakes on the downward spiral. (Flourish, Kindle 2546)
Seligman refers here to an alternative route for potential PTSD sufferers. In his research he questioned 1700 people who had experienced one or more of “the fifteen worst things that can happen in a person’s life: torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment, and so on.”
To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three—raped, tortured, and held captive for example—were stronger than those who had two. (Flourish, 2578).
In another study “61.1 percent of imprisoned airmen tortured for years by the North Vietnamese said that they had benefited psychologically from their ordeal. What’s more, the more severe their treatment, the greater the post-traumatic growth.” Seligman goes on to caution:
This is not remotely to suggest that we celebrate trauma itself; rather we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth, and we must teach our soldiers about the conditions under which such growth is most likely to happen. (Flourish, 2601).
As Christians, we can celebrate these common grace experiences and insights. But in addition to seeing hard times as opportunities to grow in character, we also want to use these them to humble us, to sober us up, to make us examine our lives, to sanctify us, to make us appreciate Christ’s sufferings, to increase our evangelistic zeal, to drive us to the promises of God, and to make us long for the world to come. Above all, we get to know God more. We also have the huge help of the Holy Spirit in all this.
We agree that the key is the story we tell ourselves. But Christians don’t have to make up a story that may or may not be true, and that may or may not have a happy ending. They simply have to connect by faith with the already-written redemptive story of God. It’s the truest of all stories and has the happiest of all endings for all its characters. So, if unbelievers can get so much benefit out of suffering, how much more should believers!