How Resilience Works

Monday January 22, 2018
Christine Bald

Resilience is a hot topic in business these days. It’s a quality companies look for when recruiting; regarded as more important than education, experience, and training in predicting who will succeed and who will fail. It is no less true for athletes–the ability to bounce back from hardship is a character trait that separates the elite from everyone else.

Why do some people buckle under pressure? Why do others suffer real hardships and not falter? We’ve all seen it happen: One person cannot seem to get the confidence back after a layoff; another, persistently depressed, takes a few years off from life after her divorce. The question we would all like answered is, Why? What exactly is that quality of resilience that carries people through life?

It’s a question psychologists have been trying to answer for 50 years. Researchers at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute have examined an increasing body of academic research on resilience, and discovered that they all overlap in three consistent ways:

Facing Down Reality
A common belief about resilience is that it stems from an optimistic nature. And that’s true, as long as optimism doesn’t distort your sense of reality. Research suggests that people often slip into denial as a coping mechanism. Facing reality—really facing it—is grueling work. Resilient people have very sober and down-to-earth views of those parts of reality that matter for survival. Optimism has its place, but for bigger challenges, a cool sense of reality is far more important. When we truly stare down reality, we prepare ourselves to act in ways that allow us to endure and survive extraordinary hardship. We train ourselves how to survive before the fact.

The Search for Meaning
We all know people who, under duress, throw up their hands and cry, “How can this be happening to me?” Such people see themselves as victims, and living through hardship carries no lessons for them. Resilient people devise constructs about their suffering to create some sort of meaning for themselves and others. For example: The resilient person, when fired or laid off, tells themselves that it’s an opportunity to find more meaningful work that they truly enjoy, then sets about doing exactly that.

Ritualized Ingenuity
The third building block is the ability to make do with whatever is at hand. Psychologists call this skill “bricolage,” which literally means “bouncing back.” It is a kind of inventiveness, the ability to improvise a solution to a problem without proper or obvious tools or materials. When situations unravel, resilient people can muddle through, imagining possibilities where others are confounded.

You can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities, but you will only be truly resilient with all three. The good news? Research on resilience suggests that it is not an innate trait but a learned skill. If you can learn to be better at something, it’s a skill. And if it’s a skill, it’s yours if you want it.

For a deeper dive into how resilience works, check out the full essay by Diane Coutu.