The Bulletin is the student newsletter of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Printed eight times during the academic year, and updated continually online, the Bulletin profiles PhD and master's students and reports on GSAS news and events.

In the aftermath of trauma, a PhD student works to find happiness

H’Sien Hayward was 16, catching a ride to the beach in Hawaii with friends, when the car she was riding in slipped off a winding mountain road, crashing and leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. When she awoke from a coma, she says her doctors presented a litany of grim scenarios: “You’ll never walk again, you’ll use a wheelchair for the rest of your life, you’ll experience depression for about two years, and suicidality is normal for about five years.”
Then, she got a second opinion.

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Her brother had died in an accident a few years before, so when she spoke with her parents, they were simply ecstatic that she was alive. “The paralysis was nothing to them,” she says. “Life was beautiful, standing or sitting. It really didn’t matter.” Thanks in part to this alternative perspective on her accident, Hayward was able to avoid the depression predicted by the doctors. And while the former competitive runner remains paraplegic today, she remembers the crash not primarily for what it disabled, but for what it enabled.

As a PhD candidate in Social Psychology, Hayward (whose first name is pronounced “Shen”) has devoted her time at Harvard to the science of happiness, and to understanding how to help others achieve it after great adversity. “There’s a great deal of work to be done, not just in societal perceptions of trauma, but in the actual medical practices following trauma.” And while her findings about the relationship between trauma and happiness may be surprising to most, they align perfectly with Hayward’s personal experience: instead of an obstacle to happiness, trauma can often serve as an impetus to its discovery.

For her dissertation, advised by Professor George Vaillant, Hayward tracked down a group of fifty survivors of traumatic-onset spinal cord injuries she had begun studying as an undergraduate at Stanford, and designed an 8-year longitudinal study comparing their happiness to that of a second group of uninjured subjects. In a second study, she compared the happiness of major injury sufferers with that of major lottery winners. In both, she found that the injured group’s happiness looked much like that of the control groups’s. “Societally there’s the conception that disability is associated with negative life experience: low quality of life, high depression, high substance abuse. And while there is some of that, by and large people are pretty happy. And they look just like people without disabilities.”

What’s more, she found that they tended to look even healthier than the control group in measures such as cognitive reappraisal, the ability to cope with adversity. This gives the disabled something of a happiness advantage over their peers, who have not been forced to examine their lives in the same way. Hayward’s third study was designed to examine this possibility, comparing the predictive power of money relative to happiness, versus the predictive power of a sense of meaning, measured using Michael Steger’s Meaning in Life Questionnaire.

Meaning, it turns out, is a much better predictor of happiness than money. The negative mental effects of injury, then, may be offset by the search for meaning a serious injury compels. “Psychological scientists tend to believe that adversity results only in psychopathology. Until ten years ago there was almost no research on the positive consequences of adversity.” Hayward’s mission, she says, is nothing less than “to change the conception that disability is a negative experience.”

Since her injury, Hayward has pursued humanitarian work related to this cause, bringing 200 wheelchairs to Mongolia, working with disabled orphans in Costa Rica, and providing psychological counseling after the Indonesian tsunami. She is a volunteer member of the United Nations NGO Committee on Mental Health, and last year she spoke at the UN about her research for a briefing on fostering accessible societies. She will graduate this month, and plans on entering a clinical respecialization program to allow her to practice rehabilitation, in addition to studying it. “We are here to evolve personally, as well as to help others,” says this scientist of happiness. “And to remember the inner part of us that is always blissful.”

Story: Nicholas Nardini
Photographs: Molly Akin

Studying the Meaning of Adversity