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The Link Between Trauma and Happiness

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Dr. Michelle Golland: Everything must be balanced by something else -- even happiness. Shadow and light, sweet and salty, good and bad, joy and pain. Our lives are filled and defined by paradoxes, an awe-inspiring ebb and flow through triumph and tragedy and back again. Nobody asks to have her world rocked by tragedy, but for many, these earthshaking moments often bring the surprising gift of clarity.


Two tragic events helped define my sense of self, my relationship with my husband and children and my life's purpose. First, my husband, Michael, was hit by a truck while he was taking a walk during a family vacation. He lay in a coma for five long days. This event occurred when our son, Asher, was just 9 months old. During those days in the ICU waiting room, I found an inner strength I'd had no idea was deep within my soul. Fortunately, my husband survived, which was truly a miracle. Then, one year to the day after Michael was hit by that truck, we found ourselves at the funeral of our second child, Ozzie, who died of a rare genetic disorder at 26 weeks in utero. That profound loss has shaped me in a way that is beyond words.

I have always believed that Michael's accident needed to happen in order for me to be able to cope with the loss of Ozzie. I do not believe I would have been able to deal with that tragedy without the spiritual beliefs that came out of Michael's accident. Both events made me a better wife, mother and person. What they instilled inside of me was an immense amount of empathy and gratitude. The survival of Michael emboldened us to live deeper and love stronger. It also gave me a sense of strength and a belief in myself that enabled me to live my life with very little fear. I stopped fearing people's reactions to me, my thoughts, my beliefs. I stopped fearing that I had no purpose beyond motherhood. I got in touch with a deep desire to work with people in a therapy practice and use my writing as a way to express myself to others. In some way, those events pulled back the gauzy film of an illusional life to reveal to me that we are all connected in this incredibly amazing, joyful and painful life; that we all have hopes, fears and desires that are deep within us; and that sometimes, a crack in our lives allows these to be released and actualized in ways beyond imagination.

So what is it about times of tragic hell -- such as coping with cancer, a hurricane destroying your home, the loss of a spouse or child -- that they become a catalyst for positive change? How do we fold those horrific stories into our lives without them hindering us emotionally in the process? Why do some people grow from tragedies, while others are totally destroyed by them? How do those who have experienced pain feel they have been transformed by it?

Some people who have survived intense emotional or physical pain seem to feel that their lives have transcended the ordinary and have allowed them to touch something that is otherworldly, giving them a sense of a profound awakening and depth in their life's journey that they are not sure would have occurred had the painful tragedy not occurred as well.Those who weather the storm of adversity show us that the real key to a happy and meaningful life is not that everything is perfect, but that it's all in how we handle the unanticipated shocks. For those people, the dark side of happiness is seeing these moments as times of triumph and examples of strength or faith.

Living a meaningful life blends satisfaction with a profound and deep human connection, which sometimes can only be gained through very intense moments. To have a full life, we need compassion, clarity, wisdom, insight and creativity. I often explain to my clients that emotional growing pains hurt physically. To feel the depth of one's pain requires us to face our darkest selves and then come out on the other side into the richness of our light.

I don't believe that one needs to experience a major trauma to grow emotionally. My hope is that we can all shred the gauzy film of our illusions and realize that life is really about the love we give to ourselves and to others. I think that a traumatic moment rips down that shroud so quickly that if we're lucky enough to see what's behind it, we are forever changed for the good.

Rich Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, says that the feeling of transformation following a life-altering event is in some ways typical. He has studied people who have endured extreme events like combat, violent crime or sudden serious illness and has coined the term "post-traumatic growth." His studies show that most feel dazed and anxious in the immediate aftermath of the difficult event. Many are preoccupied with the idea that their lives have been destroyed, and some are haunted by memory problems, anxiety issues and may experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Rich Tedeschi and other psychologists have also discovered that many people feel that their lives became richer and more gratifying after a traumatic event.

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