Bouncing Back When Things Get Difficult: The Psychology of Resilience
October 9, 2018
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resilience as demonstrated by woman lifting weightsPhoto Credit: CrossFit Fever

How much do you agree with the following statement?

“Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.”

Psychologists have found that people tend to vary in how much they agree with statements like this one—and that their willingness to persevere in the face of obstacles is linked to success. Psychologists who study resilience have found that some people are able to succeed even despite enormous obstacles and, perhaps more importantly, that anyone can cultivate techniques to become more resilient. Below, we’ll discuss what resilience is, how resilience can be increased, and how to help others become more resilient as well.

What is Resilience?

According to researchers, resilience is defined as the ability to recover from negative events. A key phenomenon in the research on stress and adversity is that individuals react in a variety of different ways in response to stress. For example, in research on childhood adversity, psychologists have found that while many children who are labeled “at risk” later develop behavioral problems or struggle with mental illness, not all children who experience these risk factors go on to develop problems later in life. In research examining how adults cope with sudden traumatic events (such as a natural disaster or serious injury), some people develop lasting symptoms and may even meet the diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder, while others recover from the same event relatively quickly—a pattern that psychologists call minimal-impact resilience.

Even in the context of less extreme events, there are a variety of ways that people can respond to adversity. For example, one student who receives a failing grade on a college midterm might decide to drop the class, while another student might decide to approach the professor for help and spend more time studying. Psychologist Angela Duckworth calls people’s tendency to persevere grit. Those who are higher in grit tend to work diligently towards a goal (persevering over long periods of time despite setbacks that might occur), while those lower in grit are more likely to give up on a goal or choose a new goal in the face of setbacks. If you’re interested in learning your own level of grit, you can take a short quiz here (the question used at the beginning of this article is from Duckworth’s grit scale).

In other words, it seems that, faced with the same problem, people have a variety of different ways that they might cope with the event. Below, I’ll discuss some of the factors that psychologists have identified as being important for resilience. I’ll also outline some ways that you can work to boost your own resilience—and to help the people around you become more resilient as well.

“Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
– American Psychological Association

Mindsets for Coping with Adversity – Fixed vs. Growth

When something goes wrong, do you tend to think of it as a reflection on your ability, or a sign that you need to put in more effort? Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues refer to people’s answers to questions like these as their mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their ability in a given area is relatively consistent—that success is due to their innate ability or “talent”, and if they’re not good at something, there’s not much that can be done to improve. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that one’s ability in a domain can be improved: if you don’t succeed at something at first, it’s possible to put in more effort (or try out a different strategy) and improve.

Interestingly, one’s mindset can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who have a fixed mindset tend to disengage after failure and don’t end up improving, while those with a growth mindset seek to challenge themselves and to grow in the face of setbacks. Dweck and her colleagues have found that helping students to develop a growth mindset can actually boost academic achievement.

However, there’s an important point to keep in mind when developing a growth mindset: having a growth mindset doesn’t simply mean working harder in response to failure—it means working to develop more effective strategies. After all, trying the same unproductive strategy over and over again isn’t necessarily going to be effective. Instead, Dweck points out that part of having a growth mindset means being willing to take a step back and develop new strategies if we experience a setback (and, if we’re parents and teachers, to help students develop new strategies when they find themselves in this situation).

Real-life examples show us that successful individuals often end up trying things several times before eventually reaching their goal. For example, when author Stephen King was writing Carrie, he became discouraged with the process and actually tossed the first few pages in the trash. His wife discovered the pages in the garbage and encouraged him to keep writing, which paid off: Carrie went on to become an influential novel and launched King’s career as a bestselling writer. You might also be surprised to learn that filmmaker Steven Spielberg didn’t actually get in to USC’s film school even after applying several times (USC later awarded him an honorary degree). In other words, even though society often tells us that success is a linear process, this isn’t actually the case—people often experience setbacks before they eventually succeed, and these setbacks can even be learning opportunities for us.

How Positive Emotions Help Us Cope

In a previous post in this series, I discussed how positive emotions have benefits beyond just being enjoyable: they help us think in new and creative ways and are linked to better health. Research also suggests that positive emotions may be especially useful in helping us cope more adaptively with stressful life events.

Psychologists Susan Folkman and Judith Moskowitz found that, despite what you might think, positive emotions are experienced frequently even in people who are going through stressful situations (such as caring for a partner who has a medical condition). They point out that positive emotions may have an important benefit in stressful situations: they may help people to reframe stressful situations in a more positive way, and experiencing positive emotions may provide us with a break from negative emotions, which could lower the risk of depression.

In one study on positive emotions and coping, researchers found that participants who initially had high levels of positive emotions were more likely to use a coping style known as “broad-minded coping,” which involves finding new and creative ways of addressing a problem. In another study, psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Robert Levinson looked at how positive emotions might help people recover more quickly from stressful situations. They asked participants to watch a short film clip that elicited feelings of fear. Participants then watched one of four other short film clips: two involved positive emotions (i.e. watching waves on a beach or puppies playing), one was a sad film, and one was relatively neutral. Throughout the process, the researchers tracked the activation of participants’ cardiovascular systems. Participants became (understandably) stressed after watching the scary film, but participants who then watched one of the pleasant films afterwards “recovered” from the stress of watching the scary film more quickly. In other words, the researchers suggest that positive emotions may actually be able to undo some of the stress that accompanies negative and stressful situations.

This research suggests that, in times of stress, it’s important to cultivate positive emotions—if you’re going through something difficult, take time to participate in an activity you enjoy or write down some good things that have happened to you. This doesn’t mean denying or avoiding negative emotions. Instead, seeking out positive emotions in times of stress means recognizing that we can look for the good things even in difficult situations. Research suggests that, by taking the time to notice the good, we may be able to become more resilient and recover from stress more quickly.

Self-Compassion and Resilience

If your close friend experiences a setback, how would you support them? Is this similar or different to how you would treat yourself if you experienced the same type of setback?

Frequently, we end up being harder on ourselves than we would be to friends and loved ones in the same situation. Research has found that by instead treating ourselves with self-compassion, we can be more resilient in the face of setbacks. According to psychologist Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three key components. The first, self-kindness, involves treating ourselves with kindness and understanding, much as we would treat a close friend. The second, common humanity, involves seeing our setbacks and negative events as part of the human condition—after all, even the most successful people have still experienced failure too. Finally, self-compassion also involves mindfulness, in which we recognize and accept our emotions without passing judgment on them.

Importantly, psychologists point out that treating ourselves with self-compassion doesn’t cause us to become complacent or unmotivated: it actually helps us work towards our goals because it makes failure less scary. Psychologist Emma Seppälä writes that “self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self indulgent. Instead, self-compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy.” Additionally, she explains that self-compassion makes negative feedback less threatening, so we’re better able to learn from constructive criticism when we treat ourselves with self-compassion.

“Self-compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy.” – Emma Seppälä, PhD

Helping Others Become Resilient

So far, I’ve mostly discussed ways that we can work to become more resilient as individuals—in other words, the things that we can all do on our own to persevere in the face of setbacks. However, there’s another important question to think about: what can we do to help others become more resilient as well?

Researchers have pointed out that parents and educators have a particularly important role in cultivating resilience in children. For example, it’s important for teachers to cultivate their own growth mindsets in order to effectively model growth mindsets to students. Research also points out that adults can help children become more resilient in stressful situations by showing children that they matter and taking the time to listen to them. In other words, we can actually do even more than working to cultivate resilience for ourselves—we can take steps to help build more resilient societies as well.

New research is showing that people are capable of showing extraordinary resilience in tough situations—and that we can learn strategies for becoming more resilient. Research has found that by developing a growth mindset, looking for the good even in the midst of stressful situations, and practicing self-compassion we can become more resilient.

References and Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.


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