Originally coined by German philosopher Nietzsche, the following quote has become a piece of common knowledge: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Most people have – at one point or another – made the experience that going through really tough times may render us stronger than before, and not shattered as one would initially expect. In psychology, this mechanism is labeled Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG; here´s an overview of the idea).
Some people might even claim that there is no gain without pain. Turns out, that this view may be wrong, or at least incomplete. In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Positive Psychology titled Gains without pains? Growth after positive events, Ann Marie Roepke, Ph.D. student at Penn´s Positive Psychology Center, presents evidence for what she calls Post-Ecstatic Growth, based on a survey among some 600 people. Basically, Roepke had people name the one experience in peoples lives that they remember as the most positive (e.g., the birth of a child). Then, she asked people to specify which category best characterized their positive event, based on Seligman´s PERMA framework and which positive emotions had been evoked by the event (e.g., in awe, inspired, uplifted, joyful, content, fascinated etc.). Additionally, she assessed the outcome of that event, for instance, feelings of personal growth or “doors opening up” for new possibilities in life.
In short, Roepke found clear evidence for the existence of Post-Ecstatic Growth. Here are some excerpts from the discussion section of her article:
Positive events can, in fact, catalyze growth. Although hedonic happiness levels tend to return to baseline after positive events, important changes in eudaimonic well-being and in worldview may remain. Four domains of growth are particularly important after positive events:
- new meaning and purpose in life;
- higher self-esteem;
- spiritual development;
- and better relationships.
Some positive experiences are more likely to lead to (self-perceived) growth than others. […] Events that evoke stronger positive emotions are more closely linked to growth. This is consistent with Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory: positive events can provide opportunities to expand one’s thought-action repertoire, and this expansion can be perceived as growth. Indeed, participants who reported that a positive experience opened their eyes to new opportunities, goals, roles, and values also felt they had grown more. […] Inspiration, awe, and elevation are especially important positive emotions for growth. […] In contrast, more hedonic positive emotion (e.g. feeling joyful and content) predicts less growth.
Inspiration is related to meaning, a sense of connection to something greater than the self. Meaning, like inspiration, is closely tied to growth: meaningful experiences are associated with more growth than experiences of accomplishment, engagement, relationship, and hedonic positive emotion.
Our best moments can inspire us, connect us to something greater than ourselves, and open our eyes to new possibilities, ultimately giving rise to growth.
Hence, there is gain without pain. If we seek out the right positive experiences, we are able to experience gain from previous gains, possibly entering into an upward-spiral of growth.