Researchers are now studying how some people manage to translate jolts into this kind of growth. "A tragedy can be looked at from multiple angles," says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The way to unearth positive emotions and emerge a better person is to be able to find those angles that allow you to see a thread of good."
Older people may be at an advantage when it comes to doing this.
"This is one of the clear places where aging has its upside," Fredrickson says. "Older people experience relatively more positive emotions compared with younger people, which positions them to be better able to bounce back. And more recently, research is showing that older people have a better ability to accept negative events: They have less emotional volatility."
But positivity doesn't necessarily translate into happiness, Calhoun notes: "Keep in mind that growth doesn't lead to a commensurate reduction in stress or suffering. Just because a bereaved parent changes careers, it doesn't mean she doesn't still miss her child and cry every night. Our best guess is that growth and distress are independent."
That's what Mark Noonan has learned, eight years after experiencing a tragic loss. Noonan was a corporate executive from Portland, Oregon, traveling on a business trip to China when he received a phone call: His wife, Carrie, had fallen off a short ladder at home and sustained a fatal head injury. She was only 50; Noonan was 52.
His wife's death "just put a huge black hole in my life," he says. But it also forced him to confront his mounting career dissatisfaction. "I had been driven by securing a retirement for my wife and myself, and what we'd do in those years. When that imploded, the question was, can I go forward or not? For me this was a rebirth moment. It left me thinking, 'Why am I doing this? What's my purpose in life?' I just lost my desire to stay in the corporate world."
When a friend mentioned a new degree program in gerontology at a Portland community college, something clicked. Noonan earned an associate degree in the program and followed that up with several internships at local nonprofits (including the state office of AARP Oregon). Eventually he accepted a position as outreach director at Elders in Action, a local nonprofit advocacy group. "Lots of tragedies happen that make people go out and reassess their lives," says Noonan, now 60. "Mine unfortunately had to do with losing my wife, which I'll never get over. But it's been a catalyst, and it helps me understand what other people are going through when they come through our door."
Next page: Post-traumatic growth turns into altruism. »