The Psychological Meaning of Resilience
Five ways to think about resilience
Posted April 4, 2018
One common problem with discussing resilience is that among the numerous definitions of it, there is no universally accepted one.
In the multitude of definitions, however, Aburn and colleagues have observed several common themes. I will discuss these themes below.1
1. Rising above
To be resilient is to overcome difficulties, to thrive in face of adversity, and to function at a level higher than that which was held prior to the hardship.
Resilience, in this sense, might be captured by a famous quote of Nietzsche, from the Twilight of the Idols: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Of course, some people react to this quote just as Dr. Niles Crane did in an episode of the TV show Frasier, by pointing out that “not everyone makes it into that second group.”
Indeed, many people who have faced adversities would be more than happy if they could only survive their difficulties and return to how they used to function. And that is exactly how the following perspective conceptualizes resilience.
2. Bouncing back
Resilience refers to bouncing back after hardships.
This theme also agrees with the etymological origin of the word resilient, which is the Latin resilire (to rebound or spring back), from salire (to leap).
Like a rubber band or a tendon, according to this theme, the resilient person may be stretched to her limits but will always spring back. She will stand up no matter how many times she gets knocked down. She may bend, but will not break.
But what if one does break? Think of the lay term, “nervous breakdown.” Could one who breaks down, who develops a mental illness but ultimately recovers, also be regarded as resilient? Not according to the next view that we will consider.
3. Mental health
Resilience can be defined as absence of (and resistance to) psychopathology.
To understand this notion of resilience, let us examine two different responses (resilience vs. recovery) to an aversive event such as the loss of a relative.
In Figure 1, the blue (upper) line represents a case in which the aversive event has resulted in a mental illness. As you can see, normal functioning has given way to psychopathology, and recovery—the return of normal functioning—has taken over two years.
The green (lower) line represents how a more resilient person has reacted to a similar event. Though she could have experienced transient disturbances (e.g., sleepless nights), she has not succumbed to a mental illness but has maintained “relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning.”2
Perhaps we can also think of the people who maintain stable levels of functioning, as ones who have succeeded in adapting to life’s misfortunes (e.g., traumas and losses). In fact, adaptation is yet another way to think about resilience.
For example, consider resilience in later life. Old age can be a time of loss (e.g., widowhood, retirement, loss of bodily functions, etc). But older people who have the ability to adapt to these changes, those who have the capacity and the strength to make the needed adjustments, are more likely to be satisfied with their lives.
As Baltes and Smith note, the concept of “self-plasticity” (or psychological adaptation) may explain why despite objective decline in health status, an older person’s subjective evaluations of her health might barely change. In the face of physical decline, the more resilient people are those who can psychologically adapt (e.g., by comparing themselves with others who are also facing similar or worse losses).
The authors, however, add that “most human beings are masters of internal adaptations and reconstructions [my emphasis].”3
5. Nothing extraordinary
As noted above, perhaps resilience is not a rare ability enjoyed by the lucky few. Masten agrees with this view and suggests that resilience is not rare nor extraordinary, but simply “a common phenomenon.”
Calling resilience “ordinary magic,” she goes on to say that resilience might be considered a common result of “basic human adaptational systems.”
These adaptational systems rely on internal and external resources, and include characteristics at the level of the individual (e.g., sense of self-efficacy), family (committed and caring parents), and society (e.g., good schools, supportive community).
If these systems work properly, the person will be resilient even in the face of severe hardships.4
Reviewing the themes above, it appears that resilience can be regarded as a special ability that allows one to rise above hardships, to bounce back from difficulties, to adapt to adversity, or to remain mentally health and stable despite coping with loss or trauma.
Resilience can also be conceptualized as a capacity that we can all call upon, as long as our basic adaptational systems are in good working order.
You can see one such system in that episode of Frasier that I referred to earlier. In that episode, Niles’s costly divorce has forced him to move out of an exclusive building and into a cheap bachelor’s apartment. Not surprisingly, Niles is devastated.
But his brother and father visit him and provide help and encouragement. His brother, for instance, offers to take Niles out to a favorite restaurant.
I wonder if Niles could have survived the hardships surrounding his divorce without his family's support.
And it is to this social support that I will return to, in my next post on resilience. But in the meantime, I would like to hear from you. Do you consider yourself resilient? What does resilience mean to you?
1. Aburn, G., Gott, M., & Hoare, K. (2016). What is resilience? An integrative review of the empirical literature. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72, 980–1000.
2. Bonanno, G.A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
3. Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (2003). New frontiers in the future of aging: From successful aging of the young old to the dilemmas of the fourth age. Gerontology, 49, 123-135.
4. Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238.