The Upsides of Suffering: On Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) and the Wounded Healer Archetype

Chiron_teaching_AchillesDoes a heart surgeon need to have suffered from a heart attack in order to be a top-notch heart surgeon? Probably not. Does a psychotherapist need to have suffered from depression in order to be a top-notch psychotherapist? Probably not. But in the latter case, it might still help a lot. The difference: whereas in the first case, the patient lies in the operating room, in the second case, a hell of a lot of empathy is needed.

In Greek mythology, there´s the character of the centaur Chiron. Among other attributes, Chiron is the epitome of the Wounded Healer. He is frequently depicted as one of the greatest healers of his time – but was accidently hit by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, resulting in the only wound that he could not heal. And that might have turned him an even better healer.

By now, there´s a lot of evidence that prior personal experience with psychological distress (broadly speaking) is a strong driver for people to seek a career in coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy. Very recently, a study was published that additionally suggests that such a personal wound might also make them better a what they do compared to their unharmed colleagues.

In a paper by the name of Survivor mission: Do those who survive have a drive to thrive at work? the researchers (including Penn´s Angela Duckworth) investigate this issue using samples of police detectives (with and without a history of violent victimization) and mental health workers (with and without a history of mental illness). Their results indicate that police detectives who have experienced violent victimization and mental health professionals who have experienced the same mental illness as their clients do indeed exhibit greater work engagement than their colleagues who lack these parallel life experiences. The link between firsthand experience of client’s hardships and work engagement appears to be explained by higher levels of grit among police detectives and by a greater sense of life-narrative continuity among mental health professionals. In a nutshell:

Wounded Healers seem to try harder and experience a stronger sense of meaning in what they do.

These findings strongly resonate with a broader strand of research (in Positive Psychology) that investigates the phenomenon of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). It is true that suffering a psychological trauma leaves a lot of people shattered. But that is by far not the only possible trajectory. Many people manage to reach a markedly higher level of psychological functioning some time after the trauma then they were at before. Specifically, successfully coping with a trauma can lead to:

As Nietzsche said: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” That´s part of the the sheer beauty of the human soul.

Want to learn from a certified Genius? Come to MAPP…

Duckworth - GritIf you´re like most people, you´re not going to be particular fond of statistics. But: Lo and behold – it can be fun! You just need the right teacher. In the case of the MAPP program, it is Angela Duckworth who was just awarded with a McArthur Fellowship – a prize that is informally also called “Genius Grant”. Angela received this award for her research on the concept of Grit which has shown to be a predictor of (academic) success above and beyond the predictive power of intelligence. In the picture, you can see Marty Seligman in the classroom the moment he told us about Angela´s achievement.

Now it might put a little extra pressure on us being taught by a genius – but who cares? When I compare this experience to learning statistics during my undergrad studies – it´s light years apart. You just need a teacher who loves to teach. So my mantra for today is:

Statistics can be fun

Why talking about the weather may make you unhappy – even on beautiful days

Today has been the second day of the MAPP´s so-called immersion week. Angela Duckworth is teaching research methods and statistics, which frankly speaking will never be my favorite subject – but that´s o.k. To learn more about the methodology of psychological research and to get an idea of how research papers are crafted, we skimmed through some articles in the classroom. I´d like to share one of those with you; it was published by Matthias Mehl and some colleagues.

Now the thing is: I am German and there is this stereotype of Germans as being rather uptight, not exactly unfriendly, but – you know – a little stiff, just not that easy to talk to. We´re the so-called “nation of poets and thinkers”, but just not very good at small-talk. Which…

…tadahhh – might explain why we´re also a rather happy nation on average!

What Matthias Mehl does as a researcher: he hooks up people with tiny recording devices that switch on automatically at certain intervals over the day. As a result, he gets these little samples of our everyday behavior, especially what we say to other people and what they say to us, respectively. Here´s what he´s found out: People that spend a lot of time in the company of other people are considerably happier on average than folks who mostly like to spend time on their own. There´s nothing new here. But: it also matters to a great extent what you talk about.

There is a considerable negative correlation between life satisfaction and small talk; and a considerable positive correlation between meaningful (“deep”) conversations and life satisfaction. Talking about shallow topics too often may be not all that beneficial to our psychological well-being. This, in turn, reminded me of that little story which is commonly attributed to Socrates – but presumably is a universal parable.

The three sieves of Socrates

Once upon a time, one of the acquaintances of Socrates came running and said: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a minute”, Socrates stopped him, “Before you tell me, I would like to conduct the three sieves test.”
“Three sieves test?”
“Yes. Before you tell me anything, take a moment to consider carefully what you are going to say and pour your words through these sieves.”
“The first one is the sieve of truth. Are you absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well… no. Actually I heard it recently and…”
“Alright”, interrupted Socrates, “So you don’t really know if it is true or not!”
“Now, let us try the second one, it is the sieve of goodness. Are you about to tell me something good about my student?”
“Well…no. On the contrary…”
“So, you want to tell me something bad about him” roared Socrates, “even though you are not certain if it is true or not?”
The acquaintance shrugged, already feeling uncomfortable.
“You may still pass the test though” said the Socrates, “because there is a third sieve – the sieve of usefulness.”
“Is what you were to tell me about my student going to be useful?”
“No, not really…” said the man resignedly. 
Socrates continued his lesson, “Well, if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why tell me at all?”

Grit: the Key for long-term Success?

When scientist look for the difference between (largely) successful versus not so successful people (across a multitude of different situations), the most important predictor so far has been overall intelligence. But there are – potentially – more important things than being the brightest kid in the room.

In 2007, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues first described a non-cognitive character trait by the name of “Grit”. Grit is described as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It is supposed to have an orthogonal relationship to general intelligence – meaning they are by and large independent aspects of our personality. One can be intelligent but not gritty, gritty but not intelligent, both at the same time – or neither intelligent nor gritty.

What makes gritty people successful?

Grit is hypothesized as a stable characteristic. A person high in Grit does not seek immediate (positive) feedback. He/she is able to maintain his/her enthusiasm for a specific goal over very long periods of time despite experiencing adversity. In this context, long-term typically means “many years”, e.g. the time it takes to finish a doctoral thesis, become a grandmaster of chess or the like. The person´s commitment towards long-term objectives is the principal element that provides the determination essential to overcome challenges and set-backs.

Abraham Lincoln may be a good example of a gritty personality. He lost his first job at the age of 23 as well as his first election campaign.  At 27, he lost his second election campaign and had a nervous breakdown. Two of his sons died while still in their infancy. He lost at a race for Congress at 34, and once more in his 39th year. At 47, he failed to become the Vice President of the USA. Then, at the age of 52, he finally managed to become one of the most popular Presidents of all time.

If you want to find out how gritty you are – you´ll find short test here.