Turning Pain into Meaning: Is There an Upside to Trauma?
Events are traumatic when they are highly stressful, frightening, or distressing. Such experiences can inflict deep psychological wounds, damaging our mental health and reducing our overall sense of wellbeing.
That being said, could there be a silver lining to trauma?
To even pose the question can seem insensitive to those who have suffered, or are suffering, acutely. Still, while the costs of trauma are well-documented, less consideration has been given to the counterintuitive possibility that trauma might contribute positively to our wellbeing in particular ways. And given that nearly all of us will experience traumatic events over the course of our lives, this is surely a possibility worth exploring — particularly if there’s a chance we can help realize any potential upsides through our reactions to trauma.
Before considering whether traumatic events can make any positive contributions to our wellbeing, we should take a moment to consider what we mean by “wellbeing”. While no universally agreed definition exists, most theorists agree that wellbeing is multidimensional; in other words, that it is made up of different parts, encapsulating much more than just feeling good.
One influential conception of wellbeing is offered by Martin Seligman (2011), the main pioneer of Positive Psychology (the subdiscipline of psychology which studies the conditions of human flourishing). According to his PERMA model, our wellbeing is built from the following five components:
- Positive emotion
Towards which component of wellbeing might traumatic experiences contribute something positive? According to research by Sean Murphy and Brock Bastian (2020) at the University of Melbourne, the answer could well be meaning; the foundation of wellbeing enhanced when our life and experience is felt to serve some higher purpose. In a series of online studies, they sought to test the hypothesis that whether an event is felt to be meaningful is not a matter of it being positive or negative, but the extremity of emotion it evokes.
Though this question had not been directly investigated before, there are good grounds for suspecting that, for meaning, extremity of emotion matters more than valence (i.e. whether emotions are positive or negative).
It is easy to see why events that produce extremely positive emotions could give a sense of meaning. Moments of profound awe, connection to others, and great inspiration represent peak experiences that help shape our life narratives. Times of great distress, grief and fear are less obviously suffused with meaning. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that people might ultimately construe even extremely negative experiences as meaningful.