Looking for a new book to add to your Fall reading list? Consider Kelly McGonigal’s “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It,” which features a section on Images & Voices of Hope. McGonigal featured ivoh because of our work around Restorative Narrative — stories that show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience.
We’ve been especially interested in learning more about the impact of this genre. It’s somewhat easy to track the quantitative impact, by looking at the Web traffic that Restorative Narratives generate and the number of shares they get. It’s harder, though, to track the qualitative impact — the question of how these narratives actually impact people and communities.
Positive psychology research shows people in positive emotional states are more creative, more pro-social, and more resourceful. Based on this research, we believe that Restorative Narratives have the potential to evoke resilience in individuals and communities, mobilizing them in ways that traditional stories that only focus on trauma can’t. The same research also suggests that resilience can be learned and that it has a ripple effect.
McGonigal’s research supports these findings, which she elaborates on in her book. With McGonigal’s permission, we’re republishing a related excerpt from the section of her book that features ivoh:
The kind of restorative narratives that ivoh champions aren’t fluff pieces that pretend that a person’s or a community’s suffering is over. However, these stories do choose to the process of recovery. How do communities rebuild after a disaster? How do people re-engage with their lives after tragedy? How is meaning created out of suffering?
According to Mallary Jean Tenore, executive director of ivoh, when people hear, read, or see restorative narratives, they feel more hopeful, courageous, and inspired to create change in their own lives. The resilience in the story is contagious. This is one of the great lessons of restorative journalism: There is power in the stories we tell and in the stories we pay attention to.
The idea that we can experience post-traumatic growth from other people’s stories is not wishful thinking. New research shows that people can find meaning in, and experience personal growth from, the traumatic experiences of others. Psychologists call this “vicarious resilience” and “vicarious growth.” It was first observed in psychotherapists and other mental health care providers, who often reported being inspired by their clients’ resilience and recovery. Vicarious growth was most commonly reported by professionals working with people who had suffered greatly; nurses caring for severely injured children at a burn treatment center, social workers helping refugees and victims of political violence or torture, psychologists counseling bereaved parents. They spoke of finding hope and feeling better about their own capacity for resilience, as well as coping better with the challenges of their own lives.
Vicarious growth is not limited to those in the helping profession. One study, conducted by researchers at Bond University in Australia, asked adults to describe the most traumatic event they had been vicariously exposed to in the past two years. Participants reported events such as a miscarriage, surviving an accident, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or crime. The events happened to friends, family members, spouses, or even strangers – some were learned about through news. The participants reported not only vicarious growth, but also that this growth enhanced their ability to find meaning in their own lives.
How do you catch resilience and growth from another person’s suffering, instead of only sympathetic distress? The most important factor seems to be a genuine empathy. You must be willing to feel their distress and imagine yourself in their experience. You also must be able to see their strength alongside their suffering. One of the biggest barriers to vicarious resilience is pity. When you pity someone, you feel sorry for their suffering but do not see their strength, and you do not see yourself in their story. In many ways, pity is a safer emotion than genuine empathy. It lets you protect yourself from sharing too closely in someone else’s distress. You can maintain the fiction that you will never suffer in that way. However, in addition to diminishing the person who is the object of your pity, it also blocks your capacity to experience vicarious growth. The process of learning and growing from another person’s suffering seems to require being affected by that suffering. It is not about passively witnessing resilience in another. It is about allowing yourself to be touched by their suffering and their strength.
McGonigal’s book offers up a lot more insights that are worth reading. In the coming months, as ivoh engages in different events and launches new projects, we’re eager to continue deepening our understanding of Restorative Narrative and its impact. We’ll publish related highlights on ivoh.org.