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Are You Surviving or Thriving?

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Resilience is often referred to as the ability to bounce back from adversity. But the question is: How high are you going to bounce following a major setback? When we talk about bouncing back we are referring, generally speaking, to bouncing back to the way we were before the setback.

Most people, following a major setback will undoubtedly suffer in one way or another and the quality of their life may very well diminish as they come to terms with what has happened to them.  Some will succumb to the pressure and may never again enjoy the quality of life they enjoyed previously.  Some will survive but won’t succumb – these people will, in other words, bounce back.  They will bounce back, more specifically, to where they were before the setback.

There are also people, however who don’t just bounce back and survive – they bounce back and thrive!  These people bounce up and settle at a point representing a level of well-being appreciably higher than the one they experienced previously. These people aren’t just surviving they’re thriving! So what are the defining characteristics and qualities of those who thrive following a major setback and to what extent can we all learn to thrive?

The positive psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky, with reference to the work of O’Leary and Ickovics, delineates the personal characteristics and qualities of those who thrive following trauma. These people experience what psychologists call post-traumatic growth. The characteristics and qualities of those who experience post-traumatic growth, according to Lyubormirsky include:

  • Renewed belief in their ability to endure and prevail.
  • Improved relationships – in particular, discovering who one’s true friends are and whom one can really count on; some relationships pass the test, while others fail.
  • Feeling more comfortable with intimacy and a greater sense of compassion for others who suffer.
  • Developing a deeper, more sophisticated and more satisfying philosophy of life.

The ability to recover and bounce back to normality is of course an achievement and it ought to be recognised and celebrated – to thrive however, is even better. It needs to be acknowledged, however that thriving after a traumatic experience is not easy: Those who thrive following a trauma will, in fact, put in a great deal of effort and hard work to improve the quality of their lives. They may not find thriving easy but they will persist and work at it until their goal is achieved.  They want to live a healthy, successful and fulfilling life.  They may not find all the answers they are looking for as they seek a life that has value, meaning and purpose but the journey alone, no matter where it takes them will leave them feeling a great deal better following the trauma.

A number of questions emerge when we think about post-traumatic growth.  For example, is the ability to thrive following a trauma an innate quality that some people naturally have or is it a quality we can we all learn to develop? The simply answer to these two particular questions is, I believe that thriving is an innate quality we all possess, just think for example how naturally resilient and determined an infant is. During the first few years of life they will learn, through dogged determination, to master two incredibly skills – walking and talking but they don’t leave it at that – they keep going, constantly learning and developing. Later in life a person may lose, for one reason or another their motivation to thrive but it can be revived and renewed and the relatively new science of positive psychology as seen in the work of psychologists such as Sonia Lyubormirsky is showing us how. 

Thriving following a traumatic event, as already mentioned is not necessarily easy, in fact in many respects it can be incredibly challenging but it is nevertheless possible – it’s just a question of the attitude we choose to take towards the situations we face.  A person afflicted cancer may, for example, experience a great deal of physical pain and discomfort while undergoing treatment and yet this person may still report feeling extraordinarily positive and optimistic about the future. 

Experiencing a high degree of subjective well-being is one of the defining features of living a life that has value, meaning and purpose and one can live a purposeful life despite experiencing pain both physical and emotional.  Thriving is not about avoiding the difficulties of life – it’s about confronting and dealing with life in a resilient, optimistic and hopeful way.

James Woodworth is a coach working in the area of psychological well-being with a particular interest in positive psychology. 

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