Soldiering On Towards Personal Growth

“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” - Ram Dass

Everyone is writing about the habits of personal growth. The secret to happiness, success and productivity is usually about 5 steps away from whatever you’re currently doing. Retraining habits might make you more productive, but how would that help with personal or spiritual growth? After all, growing in this way is about having a deeper experience of life and self.

Well, the answer is more complicated than one might expect. While there are some hallmark tenets of personal growth that seem more about character than habit -- namely optimism and gratitude -- there is also an entire field in science dedicated to both understanding personal growth and training people to experience it.

Who would dedicate years of research and heavy coin into such a project? The U.S. Army, which has funded and managed over thirty years of scientific research on both PTSD and Post-traumatic Growth. We’re all familiar with PTSD, but we’re also all familiar with its lesser-named sibling. Post-traumatic Growth happens when someone goes through an awful experience -- near death, prisoner of war, loss of health or mobility -- and instead of falling into despair, they claim it is, “The best thing that ever happened to me.”

One military study out of Vietnam actually showed that most POWs experienced positive growth from their imprisonment and only 4% developed PTSD. The growth these heroes experienced included becoming better at relating to others, embracing new possibilities, showing mental strength, considering new spirituality and appreciating daily life.

According to Penn State researcher, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, there is a spectrum of reaction to trauma. His work shows that on one end, are a small percentage of those who react to trauma with PTSD, but most people fall into the middle -- initially experiencing anxiety and depression, but eventually coping well and returning to a pre-trauma baseline. On the other far end, are people who show Post-traumatic Growth.

Seligman got to the bottom of why these people reacted so favorably and also figured out how we can all learn to become more like them. He found that one of the premier traits of PTG folks is their unwavering optimism. In every experience, they “hunt down the good stuff.” Seligman says this prevents them from falling into a trap of learned helplessness, a why-bother-shrug towards adversity, which often develops to pessimists after a negative experience.

But, good news pessimists, Seligman has been training soldiers to enhance, what he calls their PERMA skills, with great success. PERMA stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment, which he says are the building blocks of resilience and growth.

Here are his four areas of training to develop PERMA in soldiers:

  1. Emotional fitness - Seligman works to “amplify positive emotions and learn to recognize when negative ones, such as sadness and anger, are out of proportion to the reality of the threat.”
  2. Family fitness - This training focuses on relationship skills like vulnerability, trust, conflict management and forgiveness.   
  3. Social fitness - Is about empathy training and helping people increase their EQ.
  4. Spiritual fitness - Seligman says this one is not about God, per se, but simply about belonging or serving something larger than self.  He says. “It’s all about building a ‘spiritual core’ with self-awareness, a sense of agency, self-regulation, self-motivation, and social awareness.  

If you’re interested in more of the training how-tos, check out Seligman’s detailed paper here at The Harvard Business Review. Or check out the inspiring story telling of gamer Jane McGonigal, who puts these training principles into practice in her TED Talk.



Rocky Lewis
Rocky Lewis