The topic of resilience is at the top of my mind as I prepare a keynote to present to a medical society in Japan in a few weeks. Two months ago Japan was hit with a crippling earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. It is hard to comprehend how Japanese people can cope and bounce back from such overwhelming waves of crisis and negativity.
One of my heroes is Barbara Fredrickson, the leading researcher in positive emotions, or what she calls positivity. Fredrickson's research revealed recently that positivity is the main mechanism of action for resilience. Hence, a main determinant of resilience is the ability to foster and amplify positive emotions when we are swimming in a sea of negativity. A few years ago, Fredrickson and collaborators discovered a tipping-point positivity ratio of 3:1 -- three positive emotions for one negative emotion. Above the tipping point, people are resilient. They have the resources to change and grow, and bounce back from adversity. Below the tipping point, people languish and fall into a downward spiral.
In her book "Positivity" Fredrickson reports that the top 10 most common emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. So what forms of positivity might be in action for people and organizations in Japan, as well as recent victims of vicious tornados and floods at home?
One of the most heartwarming aspects of the common reaction of people and communities to severe crises is the abundant outpouring of love, support and connection. Crises often bring us to our knees and help us appreciate how our relationships with others are truly the backbone of our lives, to survive and, beyond that, to thrive. Taking time to help another, even ahead of one's own needs, is nourishing for both giver and receiver. There is also a global wave of love and support from far-away onlookers, earnest in their prayers and contributions, and hoping to help even a little.
Another common response to crisis is a sense of deep gratitude and appreciation for one's life -- that we and others are alive, having survived a serious crisis. The value of material possessions slips away as we come to appreciate the gift of waking up every morning to a new day, new possibilities and new learning. We may even feel awe for the amazing talents of humans to adapt and respond beautifully to enormous loss and suffering. Some feel awe for the power and force of Mother Nature -- even when she unleashes massive destruction in natural disasters.
Faced with adversity, resilient people are interested, open and curious, hunting for silver linings and ways to foster positive emotions as the fuel for putting one foot in front of the other in order to rebuild lives and communities. Developing a sense of profound meaning and purpose is a rich vein of positivity: "How can I make a difference? How can I use my strengths to help others recover and rebuild? How can I make lemonade out of lemons -- noticing, amplifying and harvesting the many lessons that emerge from a huge setback?"
When we make a difference individually and collectively, slowly, arduously and patiently, we find pride in our accomplishments, which propels us to keep going. When we observe the courageous efforts of others who are close or distant, we are inspired further to continue forward progress.
My observation is that one's relationship to one's future is a particularly critical source of positivity for our well-being. Hope for a better future is an important contributor to our positivity and resilience. Hence, all the positivity that we see emerging from crisis already described -- love, gratitude, awe, interest, pride and inspiration -- provides the positive energy that "hopefully" takes us to hope: a sense that better days are ahead and we have the resources to get there. And perhaps if we're lucky, we can find small moments of the last three of the 10 most common positive emotions -- joy, serenity and amusement -- to find things to smile or even laugh about, to be at peace with ourselves and even feel a little joy from new beginnings.