About George Bonanno

George Bonanno is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College and internationally recognized for his pioneering research on human resilience in the face of loss and potential trauma. He is recognized by the Web of Science as among the top one percent most cited scientists in the world, and has been honored with lifetime achievement awards by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), and the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). In addition to the books, The End of Trauma and The Other Side of Sadness, George has published hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific articles, many appearing in leading journals such as Nature, JAMA, American Psychologist, and the Annual Review of Psychology. He is also an avid painter (when he has time), reads widely, and loves music.

Autobiography: I  was born to Sicilian and German-Polish parents in a largely immigrant neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. As a young boy, I dreamed of travel. I enjoyed reading and art and, as a teenager, took up portrait painting. 

At the age of  17, I left a messy situation and set off on what turned out to be a decade-long adventure. I criss-crossed north America, hitchhiking, living out of a small tent, and sometimes stowing away in empty freight train boxcars. I supported myself with itinerant work, painting signs in the Southwest, harvesting fruit in the Pacific Northwest, cleaning a tofu factory in Colorado, working as a farm hand on the East Coast, and myriad other positions. 

Although not intended,  a number of the jobs I stumbled into involved caring for others--juvenile offenders, mentally disabled adults, and inambulatory older adults. Still lacking a college eduction, I was surprised to find myself in these roles, and equally surprised to discover I had an affinity for them. 

While traveling the Eastern US,  I decided to settle for a while in Northampton, Massachusetts. Not long after, I again found myself in the role of caring for others, this time working directly with severely psychotic patients as part of the de-institutionalization of Northampton State Psychiatric Hospital. The experience made a profound impression on me, as did my observation that some of the patients seemed to recover surprisingly quickly after moving out of the hospital. 

I decided to learn more about psychology and enrolled at nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It had been 9 years at this point since I finished high school, actually barely finished, and I was unsure about my ability to manage college life. It turned out my worries were for naught. I breezed through my freshman year classes, and was then offered a generous scholarship to study at Hampshire College, a small private school nearby.

I thrived in the atmosphere of open inquiry at Hampshire and found an excellent  mentor in Neil Stillings. With Neil's guidance, I was soon designing my own psychological experiments. To my immense personal satisfaction, I published the results of three of the experiments in a peer-reviewed journal. My first publication!

Buoyed by these successes, I next had the incredible good fortune to be accepted to study for a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Yale University. There I formed an enduring bond with another excellent mentor, Jerome L. Singer, who taught me to think like a clinical scientist. I remember with great fondness that when Jerry pondered a common assumption about some aspect of behavior he always asked, "Where is the data?" (i.e., Where is the evidence to support this assumption?). This simple phrase would have an enormous impact on me as I moved forward  into my own independent research career.

I continued painting off and on over these years but to my surprise, while earning my Ph.D,  my output accelerated. I drew and painted portraits, as well as landscapes and still lifes, and found modest success in showing my work in local galleries. I even pondered, albeit briefly, pursuing a career as a painter but gave up the idea, in part because figurative art was not in vogue in those days. But more importantly, my passion for research and the life of the mind had begun to blossom. 

I received my Ph.D. from Yale in 1991 and, that same year, married Paulette Roberts. Paulette and I inaugurated our life together by moving to San Francisco where I began a 3-year stint as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the lab of renown trauma researcher Mardi Horowitz. 

At UCSF,  I directed a large-scale longitudinal study of conjugal bereavement. It was this research that first revealed how resilient humans could be in the face of acute adversity, and fueled what became for me a career-spanning quest to document and understand human resilience.  Although this work was consistently published in top-level journals, it was initially ignored by those working in the grief and trauma field,  a story I've told in more detail in the books The Other Side of  Sadness and The End of Trauma

Having competed my post-doctoral research, Paulette and I moved to Washington, D.C. where I took on my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the Catholic University of America. There I found friendly, supportive colleagues and continued my research on bereavement. I also expanded my research to further probe the nature of resilience after other acute or potentially traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse and civilians exposed to civil war

Five years later, our son Raphael was born and shortly thereafter we moved again, this time to New York City and Columbia University where I became a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, a position I still hold today. Two years later, at the dawn of the new millenium, our second child, Angelica, was born. 

At Columbia, I established the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion lab for the study of extreme adversity and resilience. Over the  years, the lab has documented and explored resilience following various potentially traumatic events, including as terrorist attacks, military combat deployment, traumatic injury, life-threatening medical events, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, divorce, and job loss. The lab also began an exciting new stream of research on flexible adaptation as the key process underlying human resilience. 

Although our work on resilience to loss and potential trauma garnered little attention at first, my lab and I continued our research and, as the studies piled up, our results began to make an impact. Our work on flexible self-regulation also began to show promise in explaining how resilence comes about. In recent years I've been incredibly fortunate to be honored for this work with professional accolades, including lifetime achievement awards from the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), and the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). The Web of Science has also repeatedly listed me among the top one percent most cited scientists and social scientists in the world. 

It has been an enormous privilege to be able to pursue the ideas and research that compell me and I am deeply appreciative of the honors I have received. But I have no plans to slow down. My wonderful lab and I are still very active and plan to continue pursuing new ideas about trauma, adversity and the nature of human resilience as long as we have the resources to do so.

Learn more about George's research lab at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Watch an interview about George's life and work with APS past president Lisa Feldman Barrett for In the Psychologist's Studio

The Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab picnic (June, 2021)