Psychologists investigating the well-being of patients with an acquired brain injury (ABI) have documented a curious phenomenon, whereby the more serious a person’s brain injury, the higher their self-reported life-satisfaction.
With the help of the charity Headway UK, Janelle Jones and her colleagues recruited 630 people (aged 9 to 81) with an acquired brain injury. Most had sustained their injuries from road accidents, with other causes including stroke and falls. Based on the time they’d spent in a coma, the majority of the participants’ injuries were judged to be moderate to severe.
The participants answered a brief, 20-item questionnaire about their sense of identity (e.g. ‘I think of myself as someone who has survived a brain injury’), their social support, relationship changes since their injury, and their life-satisfaction.
Having a strong sense of identity, seeing oneself as a survivor, having plenty of social support and improved relationships were all independently related to higher life satisfaction. These different factors also influenced each other. ‘…[I]t is likely that personal identity and social network support factors operate in a cyclical way,’ the researchers said, ‘whereby becoming personally stronger from effectively relying on social support also makes individuals more likely to continue to seek out social support and, in that way, to develop social capital.’
Perhaps the most curious finding was that participants who’d sustained more serious injuries tended to report being more satisfied with their lives. This association was mediated by the social and identity factors – that is, participants who’d sustained a more serious injury also tended to identify more strongly as a survivor, and to have more social support and improved relationships.
An obvious suggestion is that the more seriously injured participants might not have complete insight into their lives. Jones and her colleagues doubt this is the case, in part because of the logic of the results, with identity and social support mediating the higher life satisfaction among these participants.
‘Sustaining a head injury does not always lead to a deterioration in one’s quality of life,’ the researchers concluded. ‘…[D]ata from this study serves to tell a coherent story about the way in which the quality of life of those who experience ABIs can be enhanced by the personal and social “identity work” that these injuries require them to perform. … Nietzsche, then, was correct to observe that that which does not kill us can make us stronger.’
Jones, J., Haslam, S., Jetten, J., Williams, W., Morris, R., and Saroyan, S. (2011). That which doesn’t kill us can make us stronger (and more satisfied with life): The contribution of personal and social changes to well-being after acquired brain injury. Psychology and Health, 26 (3), 353-369 DOI: 10.1080/08870440903440699