Journalist and author Mark Miller has been covering the Encore movement for years as part of his work reporting on retirement and aging for Reuters, AARP Magazine and The New York Times. Now he has published a book dealing with an important Encore theme – how traumatic life events can lead to growth and change that put people on a path to social purpose.

Mark says that he first began researching this after noticing that it was a frequent phenomenon among Encore fellows and Purpose Prize winners he interviewed for feature articles over the years. “I would always ask what motivated people to change the direction of their lives, and after a while, I could just sense when I was about to hear a very painful, traumatic story,” he recalls.

Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation tells the stories of people transformed by growth following trauma, and the new paths that they pursue. Some are on missions to help others or to make things right in the world, while others embark on new careers. Some people simply find that their relationships grow deeper, or seek a stronger spiritual dimension in their lives.

Jolt focuses on a wide range of traumas – the loss of a child, a serious illness, victims of terror attacks, or more subtle emotional turmoil. Mark investigates how it is that some people manage to not only survive jolts but emerge from the experience stronger in many ways, and what it is like to undergo painful, profound change.

Mark’s conclusions are riveting. This passage gives a taste:

We all walk around with a self-constructed sense of our world—what has happened to us in the past, expectations for the future, who and what matters to us, and how we hope to spend our time. Traumatic events can blow these self-constructed world views to pieces. They can force people to answer piercing questions about their priorities and values. These internal struggles can inspire profound and lasting personal growth. People may become more compassionate toward the plight of others—they develop a vastly expanded sense of empathy that extends far beyond the usual tight network of concern for family, friends, and one’s immediate community.

I’ve followed Mark’s work for years and have been talking with him about these ideas for quite a while. So I’m thrilled that the book is now a reality. We caught up just before the book was released and below is a condensed version of our conversation:

Q: There’s a psychological phenomenon – “post-traumatic growth” behind the pattern you stumbled on. Can you explain it a bit, including why it sometimes doesn’t happen?

A: Psychologists have been researching the phenomenon since the mid-1990s, and there is a well-developed body of serious, peer-reviewed research on post-traumatic growth (PTG). The topic sometimes gets mixed together with resilience – but the researchers who specialize in this are careful to distinguish between the two. Resilience is a term describing the ability to recover and continue as you were – PTG is a process that leaves you completely transformed.

The researchers believe that some degree of growth happens quite often – anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of people dealing with trauma report at least some amount of personal growth. But those numbers are soft because it really depends on how you define growth.

It’s also really important to convey that there should never be an expectation of growth. If it happens, that’s wonderful – but the last thing I would want to convey here is that someone already suffering through a traumatic life event should somehow carry an extra burden because they don’t feel they are growing as a result. That’s not the message here at all.

Q: Many of the people you interviewed for this book are older, and you cite some research that the qualities of post-traumatic growth appear disproportionately in older people (and in women). Can you share more on that?

A: There are no clear predictors on who will experience PTG and who will not. There is some research pointing to gender as a predictive factor – women may be more likely to experience PTG because they tend to be more open and social in the way they discuss what is going on with friends and family. Age may also be a factor – some research suggests that people over age 35 – and especially women – are more likely to experience PTG.

I think age probably is a factor – people who have greater depth of life experience are in a better position to assess where they are following trauma and set a new course. And there definitely are many examples of this in the the Encore community.

Q: How can we apply these lessons to smaller hardships?

A:  In other words – can I have the transformation without the trauma? I think it’s possible, but not without some hard work.

I’d start by considering that trauma is part of the human condition. Fortunately, most of us will not suffer a dramatic traumatic event like a plane crash or terror attack. But we all suffer emotional crises, illnesses, the death of family members and friends. Many of us have gone through career crises during the economic upheaval of the past decade. And then there are life’s near-misses.

I suspect many of us go through these experiences without taking the opportunity to reflect on their meaning. Is it possible to listen to your inner voice in a deeper way and make that voice so loud that the idea of continuing without making changes becomes intolerable?

Q: Are you living your life any differently as a result of writing this book?  

A: Yes. And the changes I have experienced start with something I learned about jolt survivors – they regard their traumas as a profound, valuable gift. The essence of the gift is that trauma shakes everything up—our expectations for the future, our values, and how we want to spend our time.

For me, the book has reinforced the need to have a sense of urgency and purpose, and to live mindfully and with a sense of gratitude. The people who inhabit Jolt teach us that if you’re going to make changes, you had better get on with it. I think this is something we can all embrace with some effort—contemplating the reality of our own mortality also can help focus the mind on the possibility of change. 

Published: February 20, 2018