Why Resilience Matters When Challenges Go Viral

Research explains positive psychology's connection to resilience.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

"Why is learned optimism so important for our workers, students and ourselves?" Alison Joliff, an expatriate from England and graduate researcher, has been answering that question through her research on resilience the past two years at Oakland University.  She argues that learned optimism, the result of previous successes or what Pink (2009) calls “mastery experiences,” feeds into an overall feeling of personal competence and self-confidence.

So what? Well, these are both factors of resilience, and resilience is what we need to overcome the challenges, obstacles and stresses of modern-day life—ranging from bad bosses, to complex problems at work, to difficult classes, and even to COVID-19 or other viruses. Joliff adds, "Resilience is the back-bone of character, the grit which keeps us persevering despite setbacks. Resilience keeps us plugging on through trials and tribulations, so long as we have an end-goal in sight."

Resilient surfer Bethany Hamilton
Source: Shutterstock

Well-planned, intermediate, short-term targets are often necessary to reach the end goal.  An example might be the list of modules to be completed in a degree program or mapping the stages of a three-year project at work.  Each step by itself may not provide inspiration, but they must all be adequately completed in order to obtain the goal at the end. Joliff says that "if their resilience is strong enough to reach the targets, they will persevere to achieve something which excites their passion."

Working with new college graduates, managers may find that the amount of resilience varies greatly.  Some new hires may have already overcome many hurdles just to get to and through the university, or even into a career job. At the other extreme, a few may have cruised through secondary education with relatively little effort and no professional internships. Thus, they not have built up much resilience and not discovered how to problem solve in the professional world of work. They may never have lived the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” 

Often these new professionals find that taking graduate classes while working full-time is more challenging than they are used to. They are no longer the big fish in a small pond but one among many fish. If they have not previously learned resilient behavior patterns, corporate culture shock and juggling family, school and work may be overwhelming. In early careers, even if fairly resilient, they may have extra difficulties and obstacles to navigate including failed romantic relationships, stalled out careers, or a toxic work environment. The key to resilience is to manage your life and career so that intense stress periods are few and short in duration. Overloading your life and career with excessive work that is without margins is more than even the most resilient professional can bear. 

How, then, can we help to build resilience in our students, our employees and ourselves? By finding opportunities to LEARN optimism such as starting small, positive, and manageable challenges that can be overcome with relative ease will begin the process. Later, the degree of difficulty may be increased to continue the level of challenge relative to the ability and resilience of the individual. Teachers among us will know this theory as the Zone of Proximal Development (Vigotsky, 1978) and educators may well have used the necessary scaffolding (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976) in order to achieve the appropriate level of difficulty in a variety of tasks.

What can we do to further encourage resilience? Joliff says, that by ensuring that the social context is as welcoming and supportive as possible; that teams share the workload, collaborate, and cooperate; and that we mix in positivity with as many activities as possible; that managers (and professors) create positive dyadic relationships; and that the practical resources (e.g., training and equipment) are in place to allow people to fulfill their purpose. The latter need is linked to the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy and therefore takes high priority—if the practical tools and logistics are lacking, then progress is disadvantaged and therefore unlikely. The personal resources wasted on filling the practical need will be resources not available to overcome problems as they arise.

Finally, Joliff argues that once these are in place, the addition of coaching in mindfulness will aid in the control of emotions (especially negative ones), further increasing resilience levels (Galante, J., Dufour, G., Vainre, M., Wagner, A., Stochl, J., Benton, A., … Jones, P. 2018). She emphasizes that reminders from spouses, friends, parents, managers or even professors about earlier successes, too, will bolster self-efficacy and encourage the attempt at more challenging goals. With all this, resilience WILL get better. 

Hence for every person whose resilience is improved, the benefits will be widespread and multi-faceted, even for others around you. She claims, "Instead of wallowing in their own sense of foreboding, spreading doom and gloom, each person has the personal resources to share a positive light of learned optimism and resilience at work or at home." It doesn’t get any better than that.


Galante, J., Dufour, G., Vainre, M., Wagner, A., Stochl, J., Benton, A., … Jones, P. (2018). A mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress in university students (the Mindful Student Study): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Public Health, 3(2), e72–e81.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive. New York: Riverhead. 

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100. Retrieved from