Designed for Success
Resilience is in human nature. Persevering through adversity is not a bug in our software but a feature of the hardware.
By Noam Shpancer Ph.D. published August 19, 2020 - last reviewed on October 7, 2020
Are you feeling vulnerable? If so, you’re certainly not alone. One thing the current coronavirus pandemic has done is to heighten our sense of vulnerability. Suddenly we are all too aware of how fragile everything is—our health, our jobs, our institutions, our way of life. The pandemic has forced us to contemplate difficult and scary eventualities. In doing so, it has wormed its way into a deep groove in our psychological architecture. We are, it turns out, biologically predisposed to notice threats and to home in on trouble. The brain’s so-called negativity bias has evolved because to our evolutionary ancestors the costs of missing a threat (I failed to notice the approaching predator) were higher than the costs of a false alarm (I thought it was a predator, but it wasn’t).
In a dangerous environment, the vigilant survive. And while technological and medical advances have made our modern environment markedly safer than our ancestors’ was, our brains have retained the old wiring.
Even without a global pandemic to prime our sense of dread, the supply of bad news in our time of information overload is incessant, and thus our feelings of vulnerability are intensified. To be sure, such feelings are not without justification. The world holds danger; we are indeed quite vulnerable to many threats. And, as the pandemic has reminded us, the sense of control we labor to cultivate in our day-to-day lives is, to a meaningful extent, illusory.
Yet our vulnerability doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, psychological research over the last few decades has shown convincingly that our default mode under adverse conditions is not vulnerability but resilience. The term resilience refers to the experience of undergoing adversity without suffering debilitating effects. The psychologists Ann Masten and Norman Garmezy, pioneers in the study of resilience, defined it as “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances.” For example, resilience is at play when at-risk children achieve school success, when people maintain their poise in an emergency, or when survivors heal from trauma.
Resilience is in our nature. The central processes underlying human existence—think pregnancy, child development, parenting—are what psychologists call “well-buffered processes.” That is, they are designed to succeed and are difficult to disrupt, derail, or decimate. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: Survival on earth is hard. If our basic processes were fragile and easily disrupted, our species would have devolved into extinction.
Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly the human tendency toward resilience. For example, Lisa Butler of Stanford University and her colleagues followed over 1,200 individuals for six months after the 9/11 attacks, measuring changes in their overall psychological well-being, levels of distress and emotional suppression, and cognitive outlook (positive or negative worldview).
The researchers found that most of those exposed, directly or indirectly, to the collective trauma were not severely traumatized, instead exhibiting “remarkable resilience.” Another post-9/11 study tracked a sample of over 2,700 New Yorkers for six months following the attack, observing resilience (defined as the absence of any PTSD symptoms) in over 65 percent of the sample.
Summarizing decades of research on resilience in children, Ann Masten, in a widely cited 2001 article in American Psychologist titled “Ordinary Magic,” noted: “The most surprising conclusion emerging from studies of these children is the ordinariness of resilience. An examination of converging findings…suggests that resilience is common and that it usually arises from the normative functions of human adaptational systems.”
Persevering through adversity is not a bug in our software but a feature of the hardware, yet we may fail to readily appreciate this truth for two main reasons. First, we are continuously bombarded with bad news that activates our negativity bias and inflames our anxieties. To wit: Plane crashes will always make the news, yet planes that land safely never will. Thus, we may continue to be wary of flying, even though the fact remains that most planes land safely, having endured successfully all manner of turbulence, bad weather, and atrocious food.
Second, we may fail to appreciate the truth of our resilience because we’re prone to commit a kind of cognitive error known as a “propositional fallacy.” We do this when we assume, for example, that the fact that most prisoners are criminals implies that most criminals are in prison. In fact, prisoners who are criminals and criminals who are in prison belong to two independent distributions.
Similarly, we often wrongly conclude that if most troubled adults have had chaotic childhoods, then most of those who’ve had chaotic childhoods will end up as troubled adults­, or that since people with PTSD have had trauma, then most victims of trauma will develop PTSD. In fact, most children from dysfunctional homes become functional adults, and most trauma survivors do not develop PTSD. Resilience is the rule, not the exception.
Now, a thought experiment: When I say resilience , what comes to your mind? My guess is that you’ve conjured up the image of a strong, hardy individual, resourcefully maneuvering life’s obstacles. It is easy—particularly in our individualistic culture—to imagine resilience as an internal individual quality, something people have more or less of. This notion is quite intuitive, and not entirely meritless. Indeed, several individual characteristics have been shown to predict resilient outcomes.
For example, high intelligence is one such individual predictor. High intelligence is, in essence, adaptive problem-solving. It stands to reason that competent problem-solvers will navigate problematic environments more successfully.
Personality also plays a role. People who score high on measures of emotional stability (the propensity toward positive emotions and low reactivity), extraversion (the tendency to be outgoing, gregarious, sociable, and expressive), and conscientiousness (the quality of being reliable, organized, methodical, and thorough) are more likely to thrive under adverse conditions.
Again, the connection is quite intuitive. Human beings are social animals. We survive and thrive only in well-coordinated groups. Those who are good at keeping their cool, keeping their friends, and keeping their word are more likely to survive adversity than those who tend toward instability, isolation, and feebleness.
Another potent predictor of resilience is psychological flexibility, defined by British psychologist Lance McCracken as “the ability to persist or to change behavior in a setting of competing psychological influences, guided by goals and dependent on what the situation at hand affords.” Psychological flexibility, in other words, refers to one’s mental agility and adaptability. Just as physical flexibility denotes physical health, so does psychological flexibility denote mental health. Robust, healthy systems are more resilient.
Another individual characteristic predicting resilience is psychological hardiness. First described in the 1970s by Suzanne Kobasa, the hardy personality includes three components: commitment (a knowledge of one’s value, purpose, and goals, and engagement rather than alienation); control (perceiving that one can influence the course of events, empowerment rather than powerlessness); and challenge (framing events as challenges and opportunities for growth rather than as threats and calamities).
In other words, psychological hardiness denotes the ability to assess stressors accurately, face them intentionally, and act on them with courage and purpose, transforming potential calamity into opportunity. Hardiness provides protection against the ill effects of stress by facilitating problem-engagement rather than avoidance, and by facilitating optimistic expectations and a sense of self-efficacy.
Research suggests that hardiness may also operate via biological pathways. For example, military psychologist Paul Bartone and colleagues have found that hardiness predicts higher HDL (good cholesterol) and less body fat, suggesting that “psychological hardiness confers resilience in part through an influence on cholesterol production and metabolism.”
In sum, individual characteristics matter to resilience. Alas, human psychology being what it is (it’s complicated), the full story is richer and more interesting than that. This is because no individual exists sans context. A baby, however strong and healthy at birth, cannot survive—let alone flourish—without competent outside help. Neither can any of us.
Moreover, the very meaning of individual traits and actions is dependent on context. Beers and cheers are welcome at the game, less so at the funeral. An agreeable person may thrive socially with friends but fail to advance in a competitive business environment. Moreover, much of our appraisal of our own well-being depends on others around us. Whether you’re satisfied with your income has a lot to do with your neighbors’ incomes.
Thus, while it is easy for us to talk about resilient people, current research suggests that resilience actually resides “on the hyphen” between person and context, constituting not merely a trait but a dynamic reciprocal process, responsive to—and dependent upon—contextual factors, including family, community, and cultural circumstances. The factors that shape resilience may therefore differ by both person and context variables. An infant’s resilience story may be quite different from that of an elderly person, and the resilience factors involved in surviving the stress of war may differ from those required for parenting a disabled child.
One helpful way to think about resilience is as a contest of sorts between various kinds of protective and risk factors in the life of a person. For example, on the individual level, high intelligence may be protective, while low intelligence may be a risk factor. On the level of the family, marriage stability is likely protective, while marital conflict may constitute risk. On the community level, a safe neighborhood is protective while a chaotic neighborhood is a risk. On the cultural level, good prenatal care services are protective, while their absence is a risk. If the protective factors are sufficiently strong to manage and overcome the risk factors, then we will see resilient outcomes.
On the whole, research suggests that contextual risk and protective factors predict resilience better than individual traits. For example, Arnold Sameroff and Katherine Rosenblum, two leading scholars on resilience, both at the University of Michigan, followed over 200 children from birth to adolescence, comparing the contribution of individual characteristics and environmental conditions on the children’s resilience. They found that protective child characteristics such as intelligence, while influential, could not overcome the effects of such environmental risk factors as deficient parenting, antisocial peers, and poverty in predicting the children’s mental health and academic outcomes. Context matters. Greatly.
One major contextual factor identified in the research as crucial to resilience is social support. Social support and connectedness may facilitate resilience by increasing people’s motivation to adopt healthy behaviors, helping them appraise stressful events in less threatening ways, improving their confidence and self-esteem, and providing access to needed resources.
Another important factor in predicting resilience is childhood attachment. In fact, a loving bond with a capable adult has been the strongest and most consistent factor linked in the literature to resilient outcomes. For example, Masten and Garmezy found that “children who experience chronic adversity fare better or recover more successfully when they have a positive relationship with a competent adult.”
Healthy attachment facilitates resilience in part because it establishes for the child a secure base from which to explore. This is important because children learn by exploring and engaging actively with the world. The world, however, contains threats and dangers. Thus, children left entirely to their own devices without adult monitoring are unlikely to develop resilience. For one, a child who’s not given boundaries does not experience freedom but terror.
Additionally, without a minding adult, the child is more likely to encounter overwhelming or traumatic experiences. Such experiences do not as a rule strengthen a child. A history of trauma is a strong risk factor for future trauma. Children who grow up unsupervised do not become tough but rather vulnerable, and their odds of handling the stressors of life diminish rather than increase.
At the same time, the other extreme—suffocating the child with domineering helicopter supervision—is also unlikely to foster resilience. First, children who can’t experiment and explore on their own cannot learn. You don’t learn how to drive by being driven around.
Second, directing constant parental anxiety at the child, even when done with good protective intentions, conveys to the child that the world is dangerous and that they are not competent or trustworthy. These messages become self-fulfilling prophecies: If my parent doesn’t trust me, why should I trust myself? If my parents expect me to fail, who am I to disappoint them?
Healthy attachment bonds facilitate resilience by avoiding these two extreme positions, forming instead a flexible system of bounded autonomy, whereby the child can explore, solve problems, and face challenges that foster growth without being overwhelmed and with the confidence of knowing that competent help is available if needed.
In sum, in considering resilience we are wise to remember that it is the rule rather than the exception. We are designed to overcome, not to succumb. We are also wise to recognize with proper humility that our success in the face of adversity is not entirely up to us. External conditions, both past and present, that are significantly out of our control determine much of our ability to survive difficult circumstances. Much of our success will depend on whether our available resources, acquired skills, and personality tendencies match well with the specific demands of the stressors we encounter.
This means that our attempts at increasing resilience should not focus solely on individual development. Rather, we should invest much of our resources in constructing social environments, systems, and institutions that create the conditions under which more people can cope. Reducing the number and severity of social risk factors will allow more people to manage the risks successfully. Better roads make better drivers.
Sitting somewhere on a self-invented spectrum between image consultant and psychotherapist, Liana Chaouli dresses people for a living, inside and out. With a soft voice and a firm eye, she strips off “the armor people hide behind” and sends them out into the world mentally freer, more confident, and a lot better looking. “I smuggle consciousness into people’s lives one garment at a time,” she says. It isn’t just the way she saves other people. It’s how she came to save herself.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, 61 years ago to a father whose plans to attend the Sorbonne were interrupted by a death in the family back home in Iraq and a mother who was his wealthy first cousin, imported to help him start a family, Chaouli was engaged at 15, married at 16, pregnant by 17. The man turned out to be emotionally and physically abusive, especially whenever others complimented her. She escaped the marriage, but needed a way to support herself and her daughter. At 22, having taught herself six languages, she became a translator, guiding visiting officials around the bustling German port. She didn’t take them just to cultural sites, she took them shopping as well. Chaouli’s education in the art of dressing began early. Her mother, likely severely depressed and with “heart trouble,” had a hard time getting going most days. Little Liana wanted only to go to the park and play with other kids. Pleading with her mother to get out of bed, she’d go to her mother’s closet, pull on something until the hanger broke, lay the dress on the bed, along with shoes and a scarf, trying to “get my mother back.” And so, even before she had the words, Chaouli knew: “If it’s to be, it’s up to me,” a principle that still guides her life.
“My mother was my first client,” is how Chaouli charitably puts it. Little Liana learned to size up people's mood quickly, because she never knew when her mother would hit her. Her father taught her things too—like how to lay electrical lines. "He also taught me that everything I carry in my heart and in my head, no one can ever take from me. I have no problem plucking myself out of any situation without support and starting something from nothing. I trust my willingness to go into the unknown.”
At 25, Chaouli moved herself and her daughter to Los Angeles, where she now runs Image Therapists International, showing clients from all over the world how to present themselves and be more authentic. “Your closet is the vault that holds your second skin. For most people it’s a trash can they shove things into. I seek people’s greatness. That’s what makes me a good image therapist.”
Marie Mokosso Nutter
Was it murder? A snake bite? A fall? Disorientation by dehydration? Marie Mokosso Nutter, 40, will never know how her twin brother died the day—or the day after, or the day after that—he went hiking in the vast and desolate Brandberg Massif hugging the western coast of Namibia. All she knows is that Mark Mokosso, a fit and experienced hiker, never made it to the next destination on his vacation in Africa in mid-December 2017. When she first got the call, she wasn’t overly worried. “My brother has military training, he is athletically built, and he often goes on rigorous hikes on solo trips to foreign countries. My initial reaction: Give it a day or two, he’ll show up.” But Nutter is a pediatric operating room nurse, and she began calculating how long a person could live in mountainous conditions without water. She and her older brother made contact with the U.S Embassy in Namibia, where military search teams and experienced trackers were on the case. Despite the risks and the unlikelihood of finding Mark in difficult terrain in a foreign country where local experts were coming up with nothing, the siblings, Minneapolis residents like Mark, decided to conduct their own search. “We needed to literally see what last thing, if anything, we could do for our brother.”
Within 72 hours, the two were on their way. They met with the country’s president but refused a palace visit because the possibility of Mark's survival diminished with every second. Christmas was no different from the days around it—too long, too hot, too hard, too mission-driven for Nutter to feel anything but exhaustion. Only on the long flight home did the pain kick in, compounded by guilt and shame. “We couldn’t even bring him back home for a real funeral.” The bizarre circumstances of the death had the effect of emotionally isolating her in grief. And then there was the sheer magnitude of the loss. The twin bond is hard to describe. It is an understanding that lies beyond the reach of words because it came before words.
She’s learned to live without answers. Nutter had done some yoga before but afterwards discovered healing properties she'd never realized it had. “It’s really about how you interact with yourself.” It softens the uncertainty, too: ”You’re able to figure out just what you can appreciate in each moment and direct your perspective. And once you start looking for at least one positive, it trains the mind to look for other positive things.” Summer 2019, Nutter became a yoga instructor, teaching in her time off. Yoga helped her heal. Now she wants to do the same for others.
For Charles Trittin, 53, the moment that cleaves life into a before and after was noon of Father’s Day 2016. At home in Eaton, Minnesota, the Lutheran pastor was just about to sit down to dinner with his wife, two children, and his own father when his wife appeared in the doorway and announced, “Chuck, I have the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life. I think I’m having a brain aneurysm.” A pharmacist who knew a thing or two, she had also just recently read neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her own ruptured aneurysm in Stroke of Insight—a book choice that likely saved her life. Trittin and 911 mobilized quickly. Nearing the hospital, the EMT told him, "She hasn't been responsive since your driveway." What followed was a year of touch-and-go intensive care, rehabilitation, and setbacks before anyone knew what the lasting effects would be. F
our and a half months in, Trittin returned to the pulpit at All Saints Lutheran Church. The anomalousness of the loss—his wife was alive but "her presence was radically changed"—unmoored him, burdening him along with all the responsibilities for her care, the household, the children, and his congregation. “I felt lonely. Among the many thoughts that raced through my brain was, Was I ever going to have sex again?” Nearly two years in, after his wife experienced a major seizure, his own mental health began unraveling. “Everything seemed to be going backward,” he recalls. “I couldn’t see a better future.” There were pills. He took them. After a night in the ER, the pastor went home—on Father’s Day—to awkwardly face his nearly grown children and his wife. “Awful things happen,” says the ever-contemplative Trittin. “There’s pain. I’m committed to the idea that this pain wouldn’t be wasted.”
In November 2019, he decided that “I couldn’t be fully present as a pastor and fully present in my family the way I wanted to, bettering their life and bettering the world.” He also had been monitoring changes in the religious landscape. “So many people are being turned off by religion and church, but I believe everyone is blessed with a soul and a spirit they carry with them.” You could say he left one ministry to create another, secular one, becoming a “life guide.” As he puts it, “My god got bigger.” He’s comfortable moving into an unknown future. The hard part is “knowing that I had the capacity to give up. I’ve been trying to figure out where that came from, because it’s probably still there. ‘Everyone has a breaking point,’ my brother said to me. There’s humanity in that. I’m part of humanity.”
For a kid raised in rural Manitoba, Winnipeg is where you go to test out adulthood. That’s what Elan Jury did, abandoning studies at Brandon University in her hometown. She needed the change after a bad breakup, and besides, her older brother lived there. On August 5, 2002, the siblings decided to drive home together for their mother’s birthday, accompanied by his months-old kitten. Once out of the city, Elan took the wheel. Just about halfway, the kitten got under her foot, Elan lost control of the car and, as it rolled over, blacked out. She came to, saw her brother slumped in the passenger seat with blood pouring from his head, jumped out of the car, flagged down a semi on the other side of the road, and passed out on the highway. After arriving by ambulance at the nearest hospital, she learned her brother hadn’t made it. “I remember feeling as if I were out of my body, hearing my voice screaming and crying, but I don’t remember any emotion attached to that.” Her own wounds required transfer to the medical center in Winnipeg. While there, she was visited by a stranger who had something to tell her—that she was one of several people who had stopped at the scene while Elan was unconscious, and she had sat with her dying brother. In fact, she had a message from him—that Elan was to live her life and to honor her brother.
It took a long time for Jury to take that in—years of job problems, abusive relationships, suicide attempts, hospitalizations. But the woman “awakened in me a deep spirituality, the idea that there has to be a purpose for all of this, that something better is going to come out of it.” It had to, says Jury, “because my family was an absolute mess even beforehand”—parents bitterly divorced, brother and father estranged, relatives cut off, mother an alcoholic. “I didn’t feel that I had a mom.” Everywhere, she looked for signs that things might be OK. Then one day she saw a rainbow. “It was a connection with my brother,” she says. In reality, it connected her with herself. Jury resumed her studies. Bachelor's degree in hand, she decided to get a master’s in marriage and family therapy. There were challenges—having enough field-related experience to get admitted, grueling work and study schedules. But since 2016, she has been a practicing family therapist in Manitoba. And now, at 45, she is taking the final step to honor her brother. “I’m going through a separation right now. He’s a lovely man. But like my mother, he’s emotionally absent. I understand how things are connected. I’m reliving a lot of my family trauma in this relationship; I’m ready to be done with it.”
By her own account, Billie McIntire was “a mess. I came from a pretty violent home. I started drinking and dieting when I was 13. By 17, I was a full-blown alcoholic and engaging in bulimic activity.” She graduated from high school—“just barely”—with no life plan and no self-esteem. She didn’t last long at community college. At 21, she wasworking at a car dealership, when some guys suggested she’d make a good stripper. “Being topless in front of people the first time was humiliating. If there is a worst job for anybody with an eating disorder, exotic dancer is it.” Still, there followed a 20-year career in Denver’s commercial sex industry. What kept her there was the community she found among sex workers—and the stigma. Then she was sex-trafficked. She was living in a motel, drinking too much, and the rent was due. The owner of an adult entertainment business she ran into agreed to let her run the administrative end. He didn’t always pay, but, hey, a high roller was coming to town and an hour with him would give her $350. She never got paid for the date. “I consented to the work; I did not consent to not be paid. The minute I wasn’t paid and the owner kept the money from the client, I became a victim of human trafficking. He exploited my intimacy for his own benefit.”
McIntire, now 55, started working her way out of the biz—step by step. She resumed community college classes. She also started running, at first just around the block. It was empowering, and she could control her weight naturally. “It also gave me the body I thought would be OK in the industry.” She transferred to the University of Colorado at Denver and got good grades. “I realized I was more than somebody’s sugar baby.” She earned a degree in communications—“but you don’t go from working in the local strip club to reporting the 9 o’clock news.” She started grad school while managing a criminal defense law practice. “I was able to build a résumé, even though the stigma follows you—unless you say the commercial sex industry is bad.”
McIntire refuses to disown her past; instead, she fights for the rights of sex workers. With a graduate degree in counseling, she especially welcomes patients who have survived sex trafficking and those who choose to trade or sell sex. “I won’t judge you or insert my values into your life about what is right for your body,” she explains. “Advocating for sex workers' rights has helped heal my life. However, sex workers still suffer extreme violence due to criminalization.” She’s already on the parapets fighting for decriminalization in Colorado.
The Four Habits of Resilience
Although external conditions play a big role in human success in the face of adversity, some aspects of resilience are indeed up to us. The habits we practice, the skills we hone, the decisions we make, and the actions we take matter to the outcome. Psychological research suggests several things we can do to facilitate resilience:
- Take turns. Bang for the buck, good relationships are our most powerful resilience strategy: The return on investment in nurturing our social relationships (intimate, familial, communal) is higher resilience.
- Take a bow. Practice flexibility. Bend so as not to break. To that end, accept and face the challenge the world has placed before you. Instead of reacting from habit, respond from conscious choice. Accept your feelings but consult your values and goals before making decisions. Stress narrows our perspective as our attention zooms in onto the trouble spot. A close-up of the problem distorts its proportions. To cope, zoom out and assess your situation honestly from a broader perspective. Take the event’s true measure in your life. Finally, observe your thinking. Just as it is unwise to buy the first pair of shoes you see at the store, so it is unwise to buy the first thought that pops into your head. You mind is a thought store, so shop around, try on some alternative ideas, check the facts, and choose the thought that fits.
- Take action. Rather than avoiding or worrying, which tend to be both self-perpetuating and paralyzing, take problem-solving action. Focus on those aspects of your situation that are within your sphere of influence or under your control. Seek to solve the solvable problems. The unsolvable problems? Seek to carry them well. Don’t lift the backpack with your teeth.
- Take (self-) care. You cannot light a candle from a blown-out candle. In order to spread your light, you first need to protect your light. Self-care is not selfishness, in the same way that assertiveness is not aggression.
In fact, self-care is the altruist’s first obligation because if you break down, so does your ability to help others who are broken down. A useful practice to that end is to reflect on those experiences and activities that provide you with moments of meaning, joy, peace, or solace. Then, become intentional about incorporating those experiences and activities into your routine.
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.
Pick up a copy of Psychology Today on newsstands now or subscribe to read the rest of the latest issue.
Facebook image: rui vale sousa/Shutterstock
LinkedIn image: elwynn/Shutterstock