How being ill can be good for you

The characters of people who recover from physical or psychological illness are strengthened by the experience. That’s the suggestion of an internet-based study by positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and colleagues, who say longitudinal research is now needed to confirm their results.

Two thousand and eighty-seven participants logged onto a research website and completed a 240-item questionnaire about their character strengths (see here). It was only at the end of the questionnaire that participants were asked about any previous physical or psychological illness they had suffered. “Thus, our participants were not explicitly primed to respond in terms of a survivor identity”, the researchers said.

Peterson’s team found that compared with the participants who had always been well, the 422 participants who had recovered from a physical illness scored slightly higher on bravery, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, humour, kindness, love of learning, spirituality and appreciation of beauty. Meanwhile, recovery from psychological illness was associated with slightly increased appreciation of beauty, creativity, curiosity, gratitude and love of learning. The researchers said these small but significant effects were notable “given the prevailing emphasis on the psychologically scarring effects of illness and disorder”.

The illnesses most frequently cited by the participants were allergies, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. A history of illness was associated with lower life satisfaction but only among participants who hadn’t recovered.

The participants who had recovered from physical illness were more likely to report higher lifer satisfaction if they also scored highly on bravery, kindness and especially humour. For those who’d recovered from psychological illness it was appreciation of beauty and love of learning that was associated with more life satisfaction. “We suggest that deliberate interventions to increase these particular strengths may help people flourish following a major health crisis”, the researchers concluded.
Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 17-26.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.