Pain can lead to growth: Geoff Dyer (and the research)

Geoff Dyer writes so well it seems somehow demeaning to call him a critic, but that's how the world slots him, pretty much, and in books like "Out of Sheer Rage" — his admiring account of D.H. Lawrence's battles — he helps redefine the form. 

At only 56, last week Dyer suffered a stroke, while living in Santa Monica. He survived, without losing speech or mobility, but the experience left him appreciative of the life he has left:

Life continues unchanged except that I’ve had to cut out the twice-baked hazelnut croissants and I’m not playing tennis just now: I pulled a calf muscle which is taking ages to heal. A side-effect of Lipitor or a main-effect of middle age? I don’t know, but in keeping with the advice in the brochure I’m still getting plenty of exercise. I’m constantly out on my bike, in the amazing light and weather. How long would you need to live here to start taking that for granted? Longer, if you’re from England, than one lifetime, even one as lengthy as my dad’s. There’s a line in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: we never know when we’re going to die and because of that we are, at any given moment, immortal. So at this moment it feels pretty good, being where I’ve always longed to be, perched on the farthest edge of the western world. There’s a wild sunset brewing up over the Pacific. The water is glowing turquoise, the sky is turning crazy pink, the lights of the Santa Monica Ferris wheel are starting to pulse and spin in the twilight. Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around for ever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.

Turns out this focus on the moment is also a focus in psychology — on trauma as a means to growth. From Tom Jacobs in the Pacific Standard:

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—and also, apparently, more appreciative of life’s little pleasures.

In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, University of British Columbia psychologist Alyssa Croft describes a study of nearly 15,000 French adults. Those who had gone through painful life events, ranging from divorce to serious illness, were more likely to take time to appreciate transitory delights, such as gazing at a waterfall they happened upon while taking a hike.

This heightened ability to enjoy the moment (which is not shared by people still struggling with traumatic experiences) helps explain the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth,” which we examined in ourJuly/August 2013 issue.

It suggests we’re more likely to stop and smell the roses once we’ve already felt the prick of a thorn.

[paper by Alyssa Croft et al, called "From Tribulations to Appreciation: Experiencing Adversity in the Past Predicts Greater Savoring in the Present," should be available thru sage as a pdf here]

An interesting remark from the paper: 

We suspect that a well-developed ability to savor pleasurable events might be a necessary precursor to attain positive growth after traumatic life experiences. 

Hmmm. An appropriate image, perhaps: 


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