Growth and well-being

Is adversarial growth related to better or improved psychological functioning and physical health?

Given that people often report positive benefits in the aftermath of adversity, it seems reasonable to predict that such growth would result in positive psychological and health outcomes. However, the evidence for this prediction has been mixed and inconclusive with positive, negative, and null results all reported in the literature. That is, there is some disagreement in the scientific community about whether experiencing adversarial growth is associated with better well-being.

To provide a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between self-reported adversarial growth, psychological and physical health, Helgeson and her colleagues (2006) conducted a meta-analytic review of 87 articles on this topic. A meta-analysis is a statistical method that combines all existing studies on a topic to determine whether the relationship holds when all independent studies are combined. In other words, a meta-analysis provides a precise estimate of the strength of a relationship between the variables of interest across multiple independent studies.

The meta-analysis revealed that adversarial growth was related to

  • Less depression
  • Greater positive well-being
  • More intrusive and avoidant thoughts about the stressor

The relationship between growth and well-being, and between growth and decreased depression, was stronger after about two years had passed since the adverse event. However, the meta-analysis revealed that adversarial growth was unrelated to

  • Anxiety
  • Global distress including measures of negative affect and mood
  • Subjective reports of physical health
  • Quality of life including aspects of physical and mental health

It seems contradictory that adversarial growth would be associated with intrusive and avoidant thoughts, but many researchers have considered these processes to be reflective of cognitive attempts to try and make sense of the event. Considered in this context the finding appears less consistent with negative outcomes of mental health and more compatible with the process of adversarial growth.

While these findings represent one of the first systematic reviews of the topic, it is important to note that these findings are not without limitations. Although adversarial growth was related to less depression and greater positive well-being, the magnitude of these effects were relatively small. The analysis was based on cross-sectional data, meaning that no causal claims about the relationship can be made. For example, it is unclear whether adversarial growth causes positive well-being, whether it is positive well-being that is causing people to report adversarial growth, or whether increases in both adversarial growth and positive well-being are caused by a third unknown factor such as an individual’s personal coping style. This important question can only be addressed with longitudinal studies that collect information from participants at several different points over time; a sentiment that is shared by many researchers in the field.

Key references

  1. Helgeson, V.S., Reynolds, K.A., & Tomich, P.L. (2006). A meta-analytic review of benefit finding and growth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 797-816.
  2. Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (2008). Assessing positive life change: in search of meticulous methods. In C. Park., S. C. Lechner., M. H. Antoni., A.L Stanton. (Eds). Medical illness and positive life change: Can crisis lead to personal transformation? (pp. 31-49). Washington D.C. American Psychological Association.