What is resilience?
Posted March 24, 2009
From writers and researchers, I receive a number of questions about resilience these days. It is a topic of ongoing interest to positive psychologists and - in light of economic and other challenges around the world - also a topic of current interest to people in general. What is resilience? How can we assess who has it? How can we cultivate it?
Before these questions can be answered, careful attention to the words is needed.
In an important review, Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker (2000) observed that "resilience" is used inconsistently by theorists and researchers to refer to reactions to adversity ranging from not being devastated after a loss to doing okay in the wake of stress to being largely unaffected to actually flourishing. The range of definitions probably reflects the range of reactions people actually show in the face of adversity.
However, in many studies of resilience, researchers have neglected the details of the adversity of interest - e.g., whether it is discrete versus chronic, specific versus diffuse, in principle controllable versus not.
Some studies do not even show that an adversity was experienced by research participants in the first place, simply a life event that seems to be a bad one. We cannot speak of post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic growth or post-traumatic anything if there were no experienced trauma!
Here are some definitions.
At least in its original - nonpsychological - sense, resilience refers to the return to original form by some entity following a disturbance. So, a squeezed tennis ball resumes its original shape when released.
Resiliency refers to those qualities of the entity that lead to resilience. I'm not smart enough to know why a tennis ball is resilient, but I assume that something about its material and design must be responsible. Is it the fuzz?
Invulnerability is a term once used in the psychological literature to refer to people unaffected by adversity or trauma. For example, children of mothers with active schizophrenia were termed invulnerable if they seemed normal. A close look reveals that such children invariably had some other adult in their life (relative, teacher) who took on the care-giving role of which their mothers were incapable, an important reminder not to seek resilience solely in the individual, as if it were no more than a coating of psychological Teflon.
Growth refers to someone doing "better" after adversity than before: "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger." It is akin to a squeezed tennis ball turning into a beachball when released.
The possibility of post-traumatic growth has captured the attention of positive psychologists, including me, but the notion remains controversial. The relevant research usually primes the person by asking first about trauma and then about its possible benefits. Not surprisingly, many people tell a survivor story, drawing on a common script for personal narratives that is framed in terms of redemption - triumph after and over misfortune. One should worry that the misfortune and its consequences may be exaggerated after the fact.
One of the better demonstrations of growth is my own work on character strengths following trauma, which found elevations of certain strengths following potentially traumatic events: religiousness, gratitude, kindness, hope, and bravery (Peterson, Park, Pole, D'Andrea, & Seligman 2008). Unlike most research, our study measured character strengths (the ostensible outcome) before trauma was ever mentioned. Priming was minimized, but the retrospective design was still not ideal.
II should emphasize that the effects, on average, were quite modest in magnitude. This is still good and interesting news, but we shouldn't get carried away and welcome bad events because of the benefits that may follow.
My own perspective on resilience is that the term is best used descriptively to refer to the bouncing back to "normal" following potential adversity. What is normal may or may not be all that good. It depends on where someone starts.
Remember the old joke:
• "Doctor, will I be able to play the piano after the surgery on my hands?"
• "Of course."
• "That's great, because I could never play before!"
It needs to be recognized that resilience is multidimensional, meaning that one can bounce back in some domains but not others.
It also needs to be recognized that the length of time that needs to pass before resilience is evident may vary greatly, depending on the person and the domain.
My own perspective on resiliency is that it is not a singular thing, and certainly not a thing that people either have or do not have. Indeed, I rarely use the term in my own writing. Rather, resiliency is an umbrella term that covers a number of features - some internal to the person and some external - all of which exist along dimensions; for example, optimism, efficacy, meaning and purpose, life satisfaction and/or freedom from depression, social support, and group morale.
The assessment of resiliency needs to be appropriately analytic, measuring its specific components and describing people in terms of profiles of their characteristics.
Along these lines, the cultivation of resiliency needs to target its components, many of which we already know how to encourage.
The bottom line: Use the words carefully, and good answers to important questions will be possible.
Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71, 543-562.
Peterson, C., Park, N., Pole, N., D'Andrea, W., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2008). Strengths of character and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21, 214-217.