Co-written by Lee Daniel Kravetz.
We’ve all caught the common cold. If we’re not so lucky, we may even catch more nefarious bugs. But, what if it were possible to catch positive traits like resilience or even altruism?
In our recent book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, we write about people who have dramatically changed their lives in the aftermath of trauma. Though trauma is undeniably painful and horrible, we highlight ways in which the human spirit is sometimes able to transform and transcend that suffering even while enduring it. As a result, we’ve received many emails from both dear friends as well as total strangers, relating their own stories of supersurvival.
From one, we received an insightful note about her experience of not only bouncing back, but bouncing forward after traumatically losing her fiancé. She observes that sometimes supersurvival happens in groups, with members transmitting it to, and supporting it in, one another.
Four years ago my fiancé went on a solo backpacking trip and never came back. His remains were discovered 18 months later. Did I bounce back? Sure ... But it wasn't until I resigned from a job of 13 years in a major midwest city in the U.S. to move to a small western town, that I began to bounce forward. Thanks to a hiring manager (also a supersurvivor, though he likely wouldn't claim so) who recognized my potential, I took a significant pay cut but gained a network of colleagues/friends who, it turns out, had all been through similarly difficult circumstances (rare and serious illness, complicated grief over a loved one's death, surviving — and rescuing others from — abuse and substance abuse) and come out better for it.
At the end of her note, she asks an intriguing question: can support from other supersurvivors affect how supersurvivors thrive? That is to say, is resilience contagious?
No research directly addresses this issue. This is one of those topics on which the science has yet to catch up with real-life experience. But hundreds of studies show that human behavior, in general, is “catchable”. There is a documented phenomenon, for instance, called emotional contagion.
Though not everyone is equally susceptible, research shows that in general people tend to mimic the emotions of others. Learning from the example of others — sometimes called observational learning or modeling — is also one of the fundamental ways that we develop as human beings. We’ve all heard of “copycat” crimes. But we may not have heard of the research that shows that altruistic behavior also can be subject to the copycat phenomenon.
On top of that, we know that the love and care of people in our lives really matters. As one example, psychologists Kathryn Herbst-Damm and James Kulik wanted to find out if social support really could make a difference in cases where even life and death were at stake. In a 2005 study published in the journal Health Psychology, they followed 290 patients from the moment they were admitted to hospice care to the time they died.
The rate at which the patients who were visited by volunteers passed away was almost a third that of those who were not visited. The lives of the former lasted more than two and a half months longer, an eternity to someone hoping to live long enough to witness the birth of a grandchild or to celebrate one last Christmas.
Social support is one of the most robust predictors of resilience in the aftermath of trauma, as well. We all have known people who are surrounded by others who love and care about them, but for one reason or another, they don’t realize that this support is present. They may be immersed in a virtual sea of support, but believe they’re in a desert.
Along with being very painful, trauma can be an incredibly alienating experience. A natural human tendency of many people is to assume nobody could ever understand what they’ve gone through, or believe that nobody would be open to hearing about their ordeal. As a result, some people withdraw.
In other words, they may perceive that social support isn’t available, even if it is. This happened to one of the people we write about in our book, Jane McGonigal.
At the time, Jane was a graduate student studying the intersection of computers and psychology. One late night, she bent down to fix her computer’s printer and banged her head violently on the bottom of her desk. The impact propelled her brain against the top of her skull. An hour later, she was laid out, nauseated, dizzy, and disoriented. She’d given herself a concussion, usually a mild and temporary brain injury. But, unlike most concussions, this one didn’t heal.
A month later, Jane, normally a happy and upbeat person, was now met with crippling depression. Even more frightening, she was beginning to experience suicidal thoughts. She found herself experiencing unexpected feelings of isolation. She wondered if anyone could understand what she was going through. So she did something that, at the time, only a computer programmer would have done. She created a game, called SuperBetter, that allowed her to reach out and ask for the support she needed.
SuperBetter encourages players to invite real-world friends and family members to the game, and these allies in turn send the players on reality-based quests designed to help them bounce back. Through the game, Jane found our something incredible: even though she thought nobody was there for her, lots of people actually were. Friends and family members poured on support, changing her perception forever. Jane McGonigal’s game has gone on to help thousands of people change their perceptions of social support in the aftermath of trauma.
So the answer to the question of whether teams matter is a qualified “yes.” Although we can’t say for sure from the research alone, supersurvival may very well tend to happen in groups, with people passing it on, at least in some way, to one another. The people we surround ourselves with help us to become who we are, and who we want to be.
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