When it comes to resilience, the playing field isn't level: One person fails at a venture and goes down for the count, while another immediately starts planning a comeback. A divorce proves to be impossible for one person to recover from while, for someone else, it becomes just a small but telling detail in a larger, and fuller, life story.
A setback is framed as inspiration in one scenario, and a slide down the slope in another.
Why are some of us better than others at dealing with the moments that can potentially break us? What does it mean to be truly emotionally and cognitively resilient?
In the end, it may come down to a number of factors, all worth considering if you wish to build up your resilience—and all backed by research. It’s worth remembering that at the entrance to the Delphic Oracle—whom the ancient Greeks consulted before any undertaking—were the words, “Know Thyself.” A bit of introspection is still useful in the 21st century, and will give you a good sense of your own ability to withstand a shower, storm, or a tsunami.
1. Humans are hard-wired to react to the bad.
As the renowned study by Roy Baumeister and others puts it, “Bad is Stronger Than Good.” From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense: a Pollyanna approach wouldn't have helped our forebears in a world where the challenges were largely physical. With survival in mind, nature didn’t want Paleo men or women to ignore or underestimate possible danger; the benefit lay in having an individual react quickly and decisively and then to put the incident into their memory. Similarly, from an evolutionary point of view, the hard-hitting nature of negative events also encouraged humans to seek support from each other in times of difficulty and to forge cooperative bonds.
How much stronger is bad than good? Well, the ratio that pops up most frequently in the literature is 5 to 1, which is a pretty hefty imbalance; it appears in research as various as John Gottman’s studies of marriage and studies of mood and productivity at work.
2. Your skill at managing negativity determines your resilience.
Even though negative events affect us more, they happen far less frequently than positive ones—thankfully. But from the point of view of various personality theories, we're not equally adept when real trouble comes our way. According to one theory, people oriented toward approach goals—who are comfortable meeting challenges and worry more about accomplishment than about failure—recover from losses and setbacks with much greater facility and less stress than their avoidantly-oriented colleagues. Worrying about potential failures and taking on life in a perpetual defensive crouch also make the avoidant less resilient when bad news shows up at their door; they are more likely to go down for the count. (Keep in mind that all of us will, at various points, take either an approach or avoidant stance; it’s your basic temperament that’s at issue here.)
Another theory of personality distinguishes between those who are “action-oriented” and “state-oriented.” The action-oriented control their negative emotions and don’t let them spill over; they’re capable of summoning up positive self-views and attitudes in times of stress, and aren’t as reliant on external cues as the state-oriented. In contrast, the state-oriented are easily overwhelmed by negative feelings and thoughts, and tend to stew and ruminate, hesitate or procrastinate, when the going gets tough. By definition, they are less resilient.
One study showed that these dispositions can be demonstrated in very literal ways: Participants filled out questionnaires which identified them as either action or state- oriented; half were then asked to visualize experiences with a demanding person and to write about them, identifying the person with initials to make it more vivid, while the other half performed the same exercise focused on an accepting person in their lives. All of the participants were then exposed to schematized images of happy, sad, or neutral faces. It turned out that action-oriented individuals could pick out the happy faces faster than the state-oriented ones. Then all the participants were asked to respond to a list of positive and negative traits, checking each item as “me” or “not me.”
The action-oriented weren't fazed by visualizing a demanding person, nor did the recollection spill over to their self-assessment—which was not the case for state-oriented people, whose self-esteem emerged the worse for wear. Interestingly, the action-oriented weren't influenced by visualizing an accepting person but state-oriented people were, and it increased their resilience to being overrun by stress. This and other research suggests that actively seeking out ways to relax under stress may help the state-oriented when they’re under fire.
Seen from this point of view, resilience seems less like a trait than a lack of vulnerability to the influence of negative events—or evidence of a capacity to manage its impact.
3. How you define yourself matters a great deal.
Research bears out what may be just a common-sense observation: The more central the loss or setback is to your core definition of self is, the harder the hit. That’s why, according to the work of Patricia Linville, people who have more varied and complex definitions of self fare better in times of reversal, because there are more aspects of the self untouched by the debacle. Before you do an inventory, consider Linville’s definitions of these mental representations of self (which can be positive or negative)—specific events or behaviors, traits, roles, membership in groups you identify with, physical features, goals, memories and relationships. A man who has experienced a major career setback, for example, but has a relatively complex vision of self (involved father and spouse, brother, alderman in his church, community activist, golfer, cabinetmaker, aspiring screenwriter, pick-up basketball player) will feel more resilient than someone who largely defines himself by his work and his role as a provider.
Taking this into account, resilience may not be a character trait in the way the culture tends to frame it, but may depend on both personality and the way we think about our ourselves.
4. Abstract thinking may increase resilience.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve suffered the loss of an important relationship—perhaps the key emotional connection in your life—and you are struggling to find a way to get out of bed and on to your future. In their book, Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier note that thinking about a future goal in more abstract and general terms may inculcate resilience and perhaps even aid recovery and success in achieving it. Instead of focusing on replacing the specifics of what’s been lost, thinking about it generally opens up many more ways of achieving the goal you have. Instead of thinking, “I want to be able to eat dinner with a lover and fall asleep curled up” or, “I want someone to be there when I walk through the door,” recognizing that it’s emotional closeness that you yearn for makes it possible to think of all the different connections you might cultivate that would give you that sense. This has the effect of not only opening up numerous possibilities which the hunt for a single replacement for your lost love would not, but also of increasing your resilience in the wake of a bad or painful event.
5. Do you sweat the small stuff?
There’s s quotation variously attributed to Anton Chekhov or Clifford Odets although neither appears to have said or written it: “Any idiot can deal with a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” While that’s not entirely true, there is evidence that resilience and psychological well-being are worn down by those everyday hassles, especially if they are part of a repetitive pattern, even in the absence of life-changing cataclysms. Different factors affect our ability to be resilient to quotidian wear-and-tear, including level of education, income, feelings of mastery or control over the environment, and the amount of social support one has.
For example, while better-educated individuals report more daily stress than less-educated ones, they nonetheless report far fewer physical and other symptoms. Researchers have found marked differences in both the stressors and their effects, depending on age and gender; it will surprise no one that younger and middle-aged people are more stressed in the day-to-day than the 60-plus cohort. While women were more likely to be stressed by problems arising from their network of friends and family, men were more likely to mention their work as a factor. Younger people tended to be more stressed by overloads of excessive demands on time and energy than older ones; younger men reported more stress stemming from interactions with coworkers. Of course, if these stressors co-exist with other negative major life events—an illness in the family, a decline in your own health, a divorce—the challenge to your resilience may be even greater.
One way to become more resilient is to become more conscious of the chinks in your own armor and to discover what in your personality and approach to life makes it harder for you to get through the squalls and storms life sometimes kicks up. It may be useful to recognize that resilience is as much a state of mind as anything else.