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 both the Association for Psychological Science and the International Positive Psychology Association. 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.
George was born to Sicilian and German-Polish parents in a largely immigrant neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. As a young boy, he dreamed of travel. He enjoyed reading and art and, as a teenager, took up portrait painting.
At the age of 17, George set off on a decade-long adventure, criss-crossing north America, hitchhiking, living out of a small tent, and sometimes stowing away in empty freight train boxcars. He supported himself 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 position.
Although not intended, a number of the jobs he took on involved caring for others--juvenile offenders, mentally disabled adults, and inambulatory older adults. Still lacking a college eduction, he was surprised to find himself in these roles, and equally surprised to discover his affinity for them.
While traveling the Eastern US, George decided to settle for a while in Northampton, Massachusetts. Not long after, he again found himself 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 him, as did his observation that some of the patients seemed to recover surprisingly quickly after moving out of the hospital.
George decided to learn more about psychology and enrolled at nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It had been 9 years at this point since he finished high school, and he was unsure about his ability to manage college life. It turned out his worries were for naught. He breezed through his freshman year classes, and was offered a generous scholarship to study at Hampshire College, a small private school nearby.
He thrived in the atmosphere of open inquiry at Hampshire College and found an excellent mentor in Neil Stillings. With Neil's guidance, George was soon designing his own psychological experiments. To his immense personal satisfaction, he published the results of three of the experiments in a peer-reviewed journal. His first publication!
Buoyed by these successes, he moved on to study for a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Yale University. There he formed an enduring bond with another excellent mentor, Jerome L. Singer, who taught him to think like a clinical scientist. As George fondly remembers, 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 George as he moved forward into an independent research career.
George continued painting off and on over these years but, while still earning his Ph.D, his output accelerated. He drew and painted portraits, as well as landscapes and still lifes, and found modest success in showing his work in local galleries. He even pondered, albeit briefly, pursuing a career as a painter but gave up the idea because of the blooming passion he had discovered for research and the life of the mind.
George received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1991 and, that same year, married Paulette Roberts. The newly wed couple began their life together in San Francisco and George 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, George 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 George 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 told in more detail in the books The Other Side of Sadness and The End of Trauma.
Having competed his post-doctoral research, George moved to a new home as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. There he found friendly, supportive colleagues and continued his research on bereavement. He also expanded his research to further probe the nature of resilience following other forms of potential trauma, such as childhood sexual abuse and civilians exposed to civil war
Five years later, George moved to Columbia University in New York City as professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, a position he continues to hold today. At Columbia, he inaugurated 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 such events 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.
In 2019, George was honored by the Association for Psychological Science with its highest award, the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award. The Cattell award distinguishes psychological scientists for "their lifetime of significant intellectual achievements in applied psychological research and their impact on a critical problem in society at large." The same year, he was also honored with a fellow award by the International Positive Psychology Association for members who have "contributed most significantly to the advancement of knowledge in their specific field either through research or practice."
More recently, in 2021, George was listed by the Web of Science among the top one percent most cited scientists in the world. These awards are not likely to gather dust anytime soon, at the time of this writing (2021) George and his lab continue pursuing new ideas about trauma, adversity and the nature of human resilience.
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)