A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology lends a fresh perspective to Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
The authors of this article examined the relationship between cumulative lifetime adversity and human resilience. By analyzing a nationally representative sample of the population, the authors found that individuals who experienced a moderate amount of adversity during their lifetimes had higher levels of mental health and wellbeing than (a) people with an extensive history of adversity and (b) people without any history of adversity.
Taken at face value, these results seem to contradict prior research which has consistently found the experience of adversity to be positively correlated with poor mental and physical health.
That said, the authors of the current article emphasize that this is the first study to examine cumulative life adversity—compared to prior research which has historically analyzed individual events or singular categories of events. In other words, in the past, researchers have either studied the occurrence of a single event in a person’s life (e.g., asking a person to describe one adverse event that occurred during their lifetime), or a single category of adverse events that can be experienced by many people (e.g., rape). This study took a novel approach by to the topic of adversity by combining both of these methodological techniques to assess the cumulative effects of multiple events affecting the same individual across multiple categories of adverse events that tend to affect different individuals.
If both the prior findings and the current study are valid, this would suggest that the experience of adversity, can produce both a debilitating effect in the immediate time-frame in which the event occurs, and a toughening (i.e., overall strengthening) affect over one’s entire life time. Consequently, this accrual of lifetime toughness would continue to bring new perspective to one’s future appraisals by placing them in a position of greater wisdom via the confidence stemming from the knowledge that they have successfully dealt with past experiences of adversity.
In short, if aging is defined by the wisdom and strength that comes from it, then what doesn’t kill us may actually make us stronger—in moderation.
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., Cohen-Silver, R. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025-1041.