Can we grow through adversity?
The notion that adversities, challenges, or failures that occur during the course of one’s life have the potential to facilitate positive change or personal growth has had significant currency.
The name that has been most frequently assigned to these positive changes is referred to as post-traumatic growth (PTG; Helgeson et al., 2006). However, a central limitation of the research examining the possibility for PTG has been whether individuals’ reporting of growth translates into meaningful character change. For example, a majority of studies examining PTG have relied exclusively on retrospective self-perceived reports. Retrospective reports have numerous limitations, with the most notable being biasing one’s ability to correctly recall whether growth indeed transpired across those domains (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014). Additionally, while the last few years have seen increased interest in the scientific assessment and exploration of character strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; McGrath, 2015), little is known about the developmental trajectory of such traits, and the role that adversity has in being a catalyst for change.
We believe that it is important to both scientifically examine the consequences of adversity, and also ensure that the purported “benefits” of adversity are supported by scientific evidence. On the one hand, there is continued and ongoing scientific advances and debates in the resilience literature showing that individuals who have experienced adversity typically show substantial declines, but are able to recover over a period of time (Infurna & Luthar, 2016). On the other hand, however, theories of growth following adversity make an additional claim – that in the wake of adversity, an individual’s life does not only return to “normalcy” or a “new-normal”, but can in fact lead to improvement, compared to before the adversity. These theories have not yet been subjected to rigorous scientific investigation (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014). Because such theories are intuitively appealing, it is essential that they be subjected to empirical verification to help inform mainstream cultural narratives. We believe that the Pathways to Character project provides the unique opportunity to further our understanding of how character strengths and virtues can potentially grow and flourish even in the wake of adversity, and stimulate research on this topic.