In the aftermath of tragedy, gratitude helps us grow.
I can still remember with perfect clarity the moment I read the news about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I was out for a walk with my young daughter. I felt physically sick to my stomach and immediately began weeping, thinking of all those families that had just lost a little one like mine. It feels as though the past 10 to 15 years have been full of one tragedy after another—whether terrorist attacks or acts of violence, it’s hard to make sense of it all. But is there another way?
Some psychology research suggests that this rise in traumatic events can actually lead to a surprising reaction: gratitude.
Gratitude, of course, will not be our first response. It’s impossible not to go through pain, confusion and anger when you hear about these tragedies, and even more so if you experience it firsthand. This response is called Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), but there is also a second psychological concept called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Post-Traumatic Growth happens in the season after the trauma, when some people start to feel thankful to be alive, thankful that the trauma wasn’t even worse, and grateful for the chance to learn more about themselves.
In a fascinating study, researchers Julie Vieselmeyer and colleagues followed up with 359 students and faculty that were present on campus or somewhere nearby during the Seattle Pacific University shooting of 2014. They wanted to discover whether gratitude can actually protect someone from the detrimental effects of witnessing trauma.
Participants took a survey four months after the shooting occurred. Researchers asked them questions about how close (physically and emotionally) they were to the shooting, and the kinds of post-trauma symptoms they …