What Makes Us Resilient?

This is so my brother Paul

re-sil-ience (ri-`zil-yen(t)s)
1 : the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2 : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

In this second post on resilience, I take a slightly more abstract approach to examining the characteristics of those who bounce back from adversity as compared to those who don’t. Previously, I wrote about the idea of resilience in a post titled Out of the AshesIt struck a chord – I got a number of comments and reposts, and clearly readers were interested in hearing more. 

In that post I asked a series of questions about what it is that keeps us going in the face of adversity. The answers I got so far jibe quite well with what researchers have discovered to be key differences between those who flourish in the face of difficult circumstances and those who do not.

Some themes that recur in studies of resilience:

Connection to others. People who experience fewer negative effects from adversity tend to have a rich interpersonal relationship with at least one important other person. This is often a spouse, with some findings suggesting that the most important “protective” relationship for a man is with his wife, while the most important protective relationship for a woman is with a close female friend.

Belief in, and/or a sense of connection to, something larger than self. For some, this “something” is God. For others, it’s the Universe, the Force, the human community – almost anything will do. Having some sense of being a part of a larger whole is an important buffer against adversity.

It does turn out that there are “better” and “worse” ways to relate to this larger “something.” If you are a Christian, for example, and believe that Jesus is your protector, then when something really terrible happens you can find yourself with a crisis of faith. Chloe of the Mountain spoke eloquently to this in her recent post Jesus does NOT have a wonderful plan for your life

There is also a phenomenon I call the “silver cross” theory of illness (for example), which goes something like this: “I am a good person who eats well, exercises, believes in X, and has a positive attitude, therefore I am not like you who is [fill in the blank with ‘sick/dying/poor/divorced/etc.’] and therefore nothing bad will happen to me.” Again the problem is that this too easily breaks down, because the fact is that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes good things happen to bad people. The universe just doesn’t always make sense. Which brings us to the “right” way to relate to the larger “something,” which is with a …

Sense of self-efficacy. Those who are resilient in the face of adversity have a sense that they have some ability to act in an effective way. The most stressful events – this should come as no surprise – are those that come unexpectedly and with the sense that they are outside our control. One of the hallmarks of someone who is resilient is the ability to feel that there is something they can do about their circumstances. I may not be able to wish away, or even survive, let’s say heart disease, but if I feel that I can actively do something to make my life better despite my illness then I am actually more likely to live longer, with fewer complications – and I have a better chance of long-term recovery.

Something to live for; something that gets us outside ourselves. This relates to the “something bigger” theme, but with the added aspect of a sense of responsibility. Maddie and I survived the death of our beloved Gabriel in part because we had our other (then) four children to take care of; this is something I hear from others, too, about surviving the death of a loved one, an episode of depression, or a life-threatening illness. For some it’s doing service work in the community. Sometimes the something is not so profound – Chloe described the Twilight series as something that captivated her spirit when she was deeply depressed, and I’ve heard others talk about the Harry Potter series or other trivia as a means of focusing out.

A positive world view. Optimism leads to better outcomes than pessimism, every time. Actually, it turns out that a combination of self-efficacy and optimism is even better. For example, the worst outcomes in cancer patients are for those with a pessimistic attitude (“I have cancer and I’m going to die.”) Optimists do better (“I have cancer and I’m going to beat it.”) It turns out that “realistic optimists” do even better (“I have cancer and I don’t know whether I will live or die, but there is something I can do about it.”) Patients who are able to accept their illness, accept the uncertainty of the outcome, and simultaneously take an active role in their recovery are less like to be sick in the first place, are more likely to recover in less time if they do become sick, and are less likely to relapse. Similar effects are seen in other situations unrelated to illness.

So there you have it: connection to others, belief in something larger, sense of self-efficacy, something to live for, and an optimistic world view. Boiled down it’s connection, action, and positive outlook. 


Now that we know the characteristics of those who are resilient, we have to ask, “Is it possible to become more resilient?” Next up: the “Secret Sauce” of resilience.


Les Kertay, Awakened Moments


    Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being
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