In 'Option B,' Sheryl Sandberg presents meaningful work as an antidote to trauma

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Since the publication of "Lean In," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has urged readers to see possibility while acknowledging the limitations of reality. In her new book, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy," co-authored with psychologist Adam Grant, she reassesses life in the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband, Silicon Valley luminary Dave Goldberg, in 2015.

"Life," Sandberg writes in the introduction, "is never perfect."

In the book, Sandberg and Grant explore the many permutations of trauma, misfortune and grief, and the ways in which different individuals react to events that she describes as those that rob us "of the sense that life is controllable, predictable and meaningful."

A significant chapter in "Option B" is devoted to exploring "post-traumatic growth" — situations in which individuals experience positive changes after trauma — and how Sandberg found renewed professional purpose in reflecting on her husband's life. She writes:

Many of these [trauma victims] experienced ongoing anxiety and depression. Still, along with these negative emotions there were some positive changes. Up to that point, psychologists had focused mostly on two possible outcomes of trauma. Some people struggled: They developed PTSD, faced debilitating depression and anxiety or had difficulty functioning. Others were resilient: They bounced back to their state before the trauma.

Now there was a third possibility: People who suffered could bounce forward.

Sandberg acknowledges that when Grant presented this possibility to her, four months after her husband's death, it sounded "too catch-phrasey" to be real.

But according to Grant, growth is actually a common reaction: "More than half the people who experience a traumatic event report at least one positive change, compared to the less than 15 percent who develop PTSD."

And Sandberg herself did, she says, bounce forward. Though much of "Option B" explores the challenges of helping her children grieve even as she herself was mourning, Sandberg also says that after her husband's death, she found solace in advancing the mission of Facebook as a tool for helping people connect.

She cites the example of friends who used the platform to share stories after a loved one's death they had found too overwhelming to tell at a memorial service.

Sheryl Sandberg and husband Dave Goldberg at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in 2014
Scott Olson | Getty Images

"For those who have the opportunity," she writes, "pursuing meaningful work can help with recovery from trauma."

"The jobs where people find the most meaning are often ones that serve others. The roles of clergy, nurses, firefighters, addiction counselors and kindergarten teachers can be stressful, but we rely on these often under-compensated professionals for health and safety, learning and growth."

Skeptics might take note of a billionaire executive like Sandberg highlighting both her C-suite role at Facebook and that of an addiction counselor as jobs that can provide a deep sense of purpose, but the data bear her out. Salary comparison site Payscale releases an annual list of the most meaningful jobs, according to the percent of those in the occupation who say it provides "high meaning."

The most meaningful job in Payscale's most recent ranking is clergy, an occupation with median pay of $46,600. But a diverse collection of jobs fill out the top 10, with top-paying occupations like surgeon and psychiatrist coming in alongside jobs like English teacher and rehab counselor, which barely pay $40,000 a year.

Now there was a third possibility: People who suffered could bounce forward.
Sheryl Sandberg
co-author of "Option B"

Sandberg is careful to point out that trauma isn't always a catalyst for growth, and many people are too burdened emotionally and financially after a loss to make major changes.

"Our possible selves — who we hoped to become — can be collateral damage," she writes.

But even physically and emotionally demanding work, if employees feel they are doing others a service, is shown to curb burnout and depression.

"In companies, nonprofits, government and the military," Sandberg writes, "[Adam] finds that the more people believe their jobs help others, the less emotionally exhausted they feel at work and the less depressed they feel in life. And on days when people think they've had a meaningful impact on others at work, they feel more energized at home and more capable of dealing with difficult situations."

For some, witnessing another's loss is enough to prompt so-called "pre-traumatic growth."

Of friends who made changes as a result of her husband's unexpected death, Sandberg writes, "They learned lessons in life that I learned only from death."

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