The Growth Initiative seeks to understand how adverse life events can lead to positive behavioral and cognitive changes. We intend to uncover the scope of this growth, and the factors that limit growth. This research program is based at Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania and made possible through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
The Growth Initiative is an ongoing research program that aims to better understand the conditions under which people can experience positive behavioral changes after going through highly stressful adverse events. On this page we define what we mean by the term posttraumatic growth, outline some of the main research findings on the topic, discuss our own contribution to the topic, and provide links and references to both interested scientists and members of the general public. We hope you find its contents engaging and illuminating.
Changing in the Aftermath of Adversity
Nietzsche’s claim that “what does not kill me makes me stronger” has great intuitive appeal, and many of us believe that experiencing hardship and troubles can leave us in a better place than we were before. Psychological scientists have become increasingly interested in studying the positive life changes that people report in the aftermath of highly stressful life events including (but by no means limited to) diagnosis with terminal illness, bereavement, and sexual assault. This notion has been referred to with many different names, but the construct is most commonly referred to by scientists as adversarial growth, posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth, altruism born of suffering and benefit finding.
Growth through Adversity
One scientific construct that strives to capture these positive transformations in beliefs and behavior is posttraumatic growth (PTG), which may take five forms: improved relations with others, identification of new possibilities for one’s life, increased personal strength, spiritual change, and enhanced appreciation of life. These positive changes relate to the development of important qualities of character, such as diligence, generosity, love, purpose, and humility. Thus, adversity may provide opportunities for the development of important character traits, echoing St. Paul’s insight that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). For more information on the science of growth through adversity, see our Research section
What Does The Evidence Say About Adversarial Growth?
While the theme of “strength from adversity” is a central theme in many works of philosophy, theology, and literature, the empirical evidence remains mixed. For example, psychologists frequently assess adversarial growth by asking people how much they have changed for the better since the stressful event. People are asked to rate how much they believe they have changed. It is unclear to what extent a person’s subjective feelings of growth are linked to positive behavioral changes. Indeed, some psychologists have argued that self-perceptions of positive growth may not be related to meaningful changes in behavior and may even lead to negative societal outcomes. On the other hand, self-perceptions of growth are linked to higher well-being in the long run, and the connection between self-perceived growth and well-being may be even stronger for people who change their behaviors (and not only their self-concept).
Our Research Project
Our research program, based at Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania and made possible through the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation, will examine actual behavioral growth following adversity focusing specifically on:
- What triggers behavioral growth after an adverse life event
- The psychological processes that link cognitive growth to behavioral manifestations of growth
- How behavioral growth manifests in a person’s everyday behavior
How is our Research Project Unique?
Our research program is innovative for at least six reasons.
- This interdisciplinary research program combines rigorous scientific methodology with insights from philosophy, religious studies and the humanities.
- We conceptualize adversarial growth as a universal tendency as opposed to a clinical phenomenon.
- We take a varied multi-method approach to the study of adversarial growth including surveys and behavioral tasks (among other methods).
- We will use innovative prospective designs to identify the causes and triggers of behavioral growth.
- We will examine the relationship between adversity and positive behavioral growth in community samples recruited from the U.S.A, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda.
- We intend to disseminate our findings in our target populations.
In summary, our research program has the potential to significantly advance the scientific understanding of whether and how adversity can lead to positive behavioral change. We look forward to sharing our results with you.