When I think about resilience, I think of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, who held her family together through death, homelessness, unemployment, and hunger. I think of Ishmael Beah, who lost his humanity as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war but later regained it, wrote a memoir, and now serves as an advocate for the rehabilitation of child soldiers. And I think of my friends Ann and Jim. Within a span of 18 months, they separated and reconciled, she learned she had cancer and underwent treatment, and he lost his job.
Ann doesn’t see herself as resilient. “It’s just life,” she says. “You just have to deal with it when it goes down.”
It’s possible Ann was born with a temperament that makes her naturally more resilient. Even so, experts say anyone can become more resilient. It’s a matter of developing a certain mindset. “Resilient people see problems as invitations to problem solving rather than to defeat,” says Robert Brooks, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Power of Resilience. “They stop waiting for others to change first. They seek out options and alternatives and ask ‘What might I do differently?’”
The freedom of personal control
That question points to another element of resilience, a belief in personal control. “Stress-hardy people can define the factors over which they have control and those that they don’t, focusing their time and energy on situations within their sphere of influence,” says Brooks.
A great example is Kenneth Kidd, who worked on the auto assembly line for 10 years. While he didn’t have any control over the slowdown in the auto industry, he did have control over his response. After taking a buyout, he signed up for a nursing program for displaced auto workers. He had to take chemistry twice, he told the Detroit Free Press, but he passed.
“We are the authors of our own lives,” says Brooks. “And if we don’t like the life we’re leading, we need to figure out what the new script will look like.” Instead of blaming others or the circumstances when things aren’t going well, a resilient person asks, “What do I have control over?”
If you’re not one of the five million or so people who have lost jobs since the recession began, you’re likely doing the work of three people—as your boss reminds you you’re lucky to have a job at all. In that situation, it’s tough to believe you have any choice.
“People have a story [in their heads] that goes ‘if I don’t work 24/7, I’ll get fired,’ but frankly neither option seems that appealing,” says Valerie Atkin, president of Wells Street Consulting, an organizational development firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. People are often afraid to even try to negotiate a more manageable workload, but Atkin says it’s critical because working non-stop is like “knowingly driving your car until the gas tank is dry.”
Furthermore, many companies are running so lean that even prioritization is ineffectual. “We all know stuff is not going to get done but we pretend it will,” Atkin says. “You can say ‘no’ now or ‘I’m sorry’ later and have fretted a lot in the meantime.”
Make the world a better place
Resilient people use that sense of personal control not only to write their own life stories but also to contribute to the welfare of others. When Dr. Brooks asked thousands of adults, “What was something a teacher said or did that boosted your self esteem?” the most frequent answer was “Asked me to help with something.”
There’s an inborn need in us to help others and it lasts our whole lives. That’s why one of the best ways to help kids become resilient, says Brooks, is to show them they can make a positive impact on the world. The same is true of adults, particularly unemployed and aging adults. “It’s related to personal control in the sense of ‘I may not be working anymore, but I can still make a contribution.’” As Charles Dickens wrote, “No man is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else.”
Research on resilience in children also points to the importance of a “charismatic adult,” one person who believes in that child and is a positive force. Resilient adults have something similar: They have connection with people from whom they gather strength and with things larger than themselves, e.g., a higher being.
That’s true of Ann, who compares the support she got from family and friends to the cushion of air that comes through tiny air holes in an air hockey table. “It takes a bunch of holes to make the puck float,” she says. “I am that puck, floating on a cushion of air that is all of them.”
Here’s a quick-start program for building resilience. First, accept difficult situations as part of life. Determine what you have control over and start problem solving. Stop waiting for others to change. Assume they won’t and act accordingly. View your accomplishments as a result of your own resources and strengths. Think about rough times in your past; it will renew your confidence that you can endure and remind you of resources you might be able to draw on again.
Finally, remember this: Your life is made up of so much more than whatever hardship you’re facing at the moment. This too shall pass.
By Christine MacLean