About Our Work

What Do We Know?

In the field of psychology, much work has focused on the negative impact of adversity and its association with post-traumatic stress. Scholars of philosophy and theology have tried, over many generations, and unsuccessfully, to answer the question: “Why do humans suffer?”. Yet we have all known people who faced difficult circumstances and emerged from that period in their lives fundamentally changed in some positive way, a better human being in response to their experience.

Recent research has begun to focus on how people change in a positive way when facing adversity, and how growth occurs through the process of surmounting extreme challenges. Post-traumatic growth is the term used to describe these positive changes; and we are in just the early stages of understanding how people grow, what changes are induced, and what it is about the trauma, the person, and the surrounding circumstances that enable such growth to occur.

Interestingly, the changes described in post-traumatic growth are similar to those qualities attributed to persons considered “wise”. And so, we wonder: Can experiencing adversity bring about greater wisdom? If so, how might we alter a path towards potential stagnation and despair, and instead foster growth and wisdom as the outcomes of living through extremely difficult circumstances?

Our Study Model

Our current investigation into Wisdom Through Adversity is focusing on two distinct circumstances of suffering and coping:

  • patients with chronic pain
  • physicians involved in a serious medical error

These subjects were chosen because each represents a highly-challenging experience. If, despite their differences, we can identify the common thread of change in each group, then we may further illuminate the positive response to adversity in general, and understand more about how to help all people who face adversity in their lives.

Through in-depth interviews, we are exploring how people respond to adversity, how they change, what helps or hinders positive change, and if what they learn and how they grow resembles what we know about the development of wisdom. Study participants have completed questionnaires that assess personality and other inherent traits, to shed light on the characteristics that may predispose people toward positive coping.

Ardelt’s model of wisdom is three-dimensional:

  • Cognitive – the capacity to comprehend the significance and deeper meaning of things, the ambiguity and uncertainty of things, and to know the limits of what we know.
  • Reflective – the capacity to see things from many different perspectives, to avoid blame and subjectivity, to see the big picture, and to accept things as they are.
  • Affective – the capacity for compassion, empathy and gratitude.
When people describe how their process of coping with adversity has changed them, what they learned, and how they do things differently, they use the language of wisdom.

Study participants have reported having more empathy and compassion, more perspective, and greater understanding of the deeper meaning of events in their lives and the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties of life. They reflect that, although they would wish their experience on no one, that same experience in trying circumstances caused them to grow, in ways unexpected and unlikely to have occurred had they not been forced to change in order to cope.

Another common thread emerging from participant interviews is one of a process or journey in moving through the experience of adversity. This journey was often referred to in the language of story, with low points and turning points, themes and morals.

Participants talk about:

  • what they had to let go of (perfectionism, blame),
  • what they had to accept or acknowledge (limitations, ambiguity),
  • what they had to do (accept responsibility, take charge) to move forward,
  • what it took to get them there (support of colleagues, friends and family, trying new things, being open, sharing their story, forgiveness),
  • and they offer sage advice for others facing similar circumstances.

Our Goals

Ultimately, our aim is to further our understanding of how we can best assist persons facing extremely challenging circumstances to move through adversity with the best chance for a positive, personal growth-affirming outcome. It is our hope that by focusing careful attention to the journeys of these exemplary individuals, we might shed light on how people can grow and change through adversity, and how that process contributes to the development of wisdom.