Widows, widowers are happier in the face of adversity than others

vcuWidowed patients suffering from neurological illness experience greater levels of happiness than married individuals with a similar condition, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University-led study.

The results replicate and extend the findings of a prior VCU-led study. In 2013, principal investigator James B. Wade, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine, and his colleagues examined the concept of post-traumatic growth following the loss of a spouse in approximately 2,000 chronic pain sufferers. The authors found that widows and widowers experienced less emotional suffering and greater psychological hardiness than their married, divorced, separated or single counterparts.

“Humans are incredibly resilient,” Wade said. “By being confronted by and forced to deal with challenge, we develop new strategies for coping that allow us to better deal with future lifestyle threats.”

The present study, titled “Does the Death of a Spouse Increase Subjective Well-Being: An Assessment in a Population of Adults with Neurological Illness,” was published in the journal Healthy Aging Research this month. It served to replicate and extend the findings of the 2013 publication.

Both studies suggest that being confronted by and forced to cope with major lifestyle adversity propels an individual to develop new ways of coping and thinking about oneself in relation to the world. This form of post-traumatic growth has important societal implications. People are living longer and after the loss of a spouse the surviving partner will likely live for several years. For some, the loss of the spouse will lead to psychological adaptation resulting in a higher level of psychological resilience. “The loss of a spouse results in a form of emotional inoculation, protecting against future lifestyle stressors,” Wade said.

In the present study, researchers from VCU and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine studied 54 patients suffering from neurological illness. In assessing for post-traumatic growth following the death of a spouse, the authors controlled for a subject’s ethnicity, age, degree of physical disability and cognitive decline due to their neurological illness.

“The study findings have important implications for all people,” Wade said. “Everybody is going to experience their own challenges and this study shows that being confronted with adversity changes you. You adapt and grow stronger so the next time something terrible happens, you have new strategies to deal with it and cope better.”

Wade collaborated on the study with Robert P. Hart, Ph.D., VCU Department of Psychiatry; James H. Wade, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; Jonathan Bekenstein, M.D., Ph.D., VCU Department of Neurology; and Jasmohan S. Bajaj, M.D., VCU Department of Internal Medicine.

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