My research falls into four main categories:
1. Growth Experiences
People commonly experience positive changes as a result of struggling with adversity, a phenomenon known as posttraumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). My research aims at uncovering how this growth comes about, and how active intervention might facilitate it. Together with a team at University of Pennsylvania, I designed and evaluated two interventions aimed at fostering growth and raising well being after trauma and loss. Relatedly, our work suggests that the way we think about the future is key for building a meaningful life after challenges in our past. (You can learn more about future-thinking at this site on Prospective Psychology, a subfield that explores how people are drawn by mental simulations of the future, rather than being pushed by experiences from the past.)
My research also indicates that people can experience profound psychological changes after extremely good experiences in their lives — experiences like having one’s first child or accomplishing a major goal. I’ve provisionally called this phenomenon post-ecstatic growth. Interestingly, people tend to report some of the same positive changes after the best and the worst experiences of their lives; that is, posttraumatic growth and post-ecstatic growth can look similar. You can learn more about this in my recent publication in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
2. Using New Technology to Promote Well-Being and Recovery
There are effective treatments for depression (including cognitive-behavioral therapy), but many people who need help do not get it. Moreover, some people might not need intensive interventions (like therapy or medication), but rather would benefit from user-friendly self-help tools. New technologies can help deliver resources to people who need them. SuperBetter is a web-based/iPhone-based tool that uses game design elements to make it easier and more engaging to pursue important goals — including overcoming depression symptoms. Our team at Penn, together with Jane McGonigal and the great people at SuperBetter, conducted a randomized controlled trial testing whether SuperBetter really helps people reduce their depression symptoms. You can learn more at the SuperBetter website and in our scientific paper.
3. Disability and Rehabilitation
My interest in posttraumatic growth and resilience led me to the world of rehabilitation psychology, which focuses on understanding and supporting people with disabilities (including experiences of spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and amputation). I’ve collaborated on research exploring how people can better manage pain and successfully respond to challenges like limb loss.
4. Implementing Evidence-Based Practices in Healthcare
Working with a great team at VA Health Services Research & Development, I worked on supporting healthcare providers in learning evidence-based practices (such as screening and brief intervention for unhealthy alcohol use). This research focused on the factors that make it easier vs. harder to change healthcare practices, and how coaches can help. This directly relates to the work I now focus on: training and coaching clinicians and other helpers to successfully use new practices to maximize their impact on those they serve.