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Overcoming adversity

Psychology professor leads research on growth following traumatic events

By Cheryl Walker ('88) Office of Communications and External Relations
Eranda Jayawickreme

Can adversity make a person become more creative, compassionate or courageous?

Wake Forest University psychology professor Eranda Jayawickreme and a team of researchers recently started a project to find out if experiencing hardship has benefits. Do survivors of traumatic events actually change their behavior in positive ways?

“Nietzsche’s claim that ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ has great intuitive appeal, and many of us believe that adversity and troubles can leave us in a better place than we were before,” Jayawickreme said. The idea resonates in modern culture and is expressed in everything from literature to movies to pop songs.

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Jayawickreme’s group is working on a series of related studies and will be recruiting study participants from the Winston-Salem area this year.  Visit growthinitiative.org for more information.

The project’s website, growthinitiative.org, was launched this month to share updates, provide a forum for the latest research on growth following adversity and provide a space for individuals to post their own stories. It also includes resources that may be helpful for people experiencing adversity, including web videos of those who have undergone hardship.

“We know many people report psychological growth, but we want to know if that translates into how people act.”

Jayawickreme will interview survivors of civil war in Sri Lanka and genocide in Rwanda to discover if extreme adversity leads to measurable positive behavior changes.

The multi-faceted study, called “What are the Real Benefits of Hardship?  Examining Possibilities for Behavioral Growth Following Adversity,” is funded by a $450,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation and will also include assessments of multiple populations from the United States.

“This project is innovative in its interdisciplinary focus, combining insights from different fields in psychology, philosophy, religious studies and the humanities,” he said.  “The hope is to develop appropriate interventions to translate beliefs about growth following adversity into positive behaviors.”

The first challenge has been to define growth and how adversity-driven growth can be distinguished from simple learning. The research team has developed checklists of behaviors tailored to the specific cultures of each group of participants.

Of course, no one wants anything bad to happen to them. Jayawickreme and his colleagues are quick to say they are not advocating for adversity. But, when traumatic events occur, they do want to put people in a better position for positive growth following such experiences.

For the project, Jayawickreme is collaborating with William Fleeson, professor of psychology at Wake Forest; Laura Blackie, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at Wake Forest; and Marie Forgeard, Ann Marie Roepke and Zellerbach Family professor of psychology Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. A group of Wake Forest undergraduate and graduate students will work on the project.

“We intend to uncover the scope of growth and the factors that limit growth,” he said.   “Our research program has the potential to significantly advance our understanding of how adversity can lead to positive behavioral change. We are focused on trying to improve the lives of people who have experienced significant adversity.”

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