Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth
by Jim Rendon
Touchstone, 2015 ($26)

“God let me live for a purpose.” So I was informed, emphatically, by a fireball of a woman named Dr. Ruth Westheimer the first time I met her—all 4′7″ of her. The renowned sex therapist, author and media personality lost most of her family in the Holocaust, and she has been driven ever since to make her positive mark on the world. For years billionaire talk-show host and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey was sexually abused by multiple male family members and friends of her mother. She not only survived her harrowing childhood, she used the pain inside her as a springboard to success.

Are these two women's experiences just flukes, or can trauma sometimes be beneficial? Opening with the story of his father's dramatic escape from a concentration camp in 1945, Rendon, a freelance journalist, answers this question in two eye-opening ways. First, he suggests that trauma may be the driving force behind the accomplishments of many influential, passionate people, and second—and this is the bigger surprise—that a wealth of recent research shows that what we usually think of as the inevitable outcome of trauma—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—is in fact the exception to the rule. Simply put, more people benefit from trauma than are harmed by it.

Upside is a rich and detailed follow-up to a 2012 article Rendon wrote for the New York Times Magazine about trauma's “surprisingly positive flip side.” It is a tapestry of poignant stories about a wide range of people who have triumphed over agonizing losses—of children, spouses, limbs, fortunes, careers, dreams—interwoven seamlessly with the results of dozens of relevant scientific studies and stories about the pioneering researchers who conducted them. The most intriguing analyses suggest a close symbiotic relation between trauma and creativity: trauma forces people to solve daunting problems (think “necessity is the mother of invention”), and the expression of creativity is itself therapeutic (Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo and Maya Angelou were all trauma survivors).

It has been known for millennia that trauma can have positive benefits, but it wasn't until the 1980s that “post-traumatic growth” was first studied methodically, primarily by two then maverick psychology professors: Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, both at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Rendon tracks their journey—at times, a difficult one, given the overwhelming power of PTSD to grab headlines and research funding—on the road to documenting the indisputable benefits that trauma can have to strengthen relationships, spur creativity, and add meaning and deep purpose to people's lives.

Trauma is, in Rendon's words, “transformative.” It is a “dividing line,” he says, but not necessarily harmful. If you are looking for inspiration, perspective and some unexpected science, Upside is a good choice.