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How To Be More Resilient: Bouncing Back from Life's Curveballs

Early psychotherapy, thanks in large part to Freud, is notorious for looking at childhood trauma as the source of adult problems.  The fact is, and estimated 50% of children who experience traumatic events quickly get over them and proceed to live normal lives (Lemay & Ghazal, 2001).  So while blaming Dad for your sexual timidness because when you were three years old he smacked you in the behind for eating rat poison under the sink, may seem convenient and psychotherapeutically plausible, your sexual timidness likely has much more do with you than Dad. Likewise, rumination, or compulsively focusing on one's own distress over a recent tragedy may seem like a perfectly legitimate reason to sink into depression, but it is far from inevitable.  It is not events that directly robs us from our positive emotions, it is our internalization of those events.  As humans, we are strongly influenced by emotion, and positively internalizing some of life's most horrible tragedies may be too much to ask of anyone.  However, resilience, or a set of processes that enables good outcomes in spite of serious threats (Masten, 2001), is not a binary construct that we either have or don't have—there are empirically proven strategies that can help us have more resilience in any given situation by helping us to develop the kind of attitude conducive to getting over negative events more quickly.

Conditioned To Ruminate

It has been argued by Lemay and Ghazal (2001) that resilience occurs quite naturally.  From an evolutionary perspective, resilience would be a very adaptive quality to possess.  They argue that this natural quality has been impeded by the modern world—specifically referring to the practice of relying on experts to help us through times of trial.  I agree with their argument, and would extend that to include the social practices of consoling the grieving which may include receiving paid time off from work, pampering, being excused from responsibilities, or just the increased attention received that fulfills a very basic human desire.  Rumination can bring instant gratification through these "perks," but with longer-term costs to well-being—including some potentially fatal.   While I do believe we should continue these social practices (consoling the grieving has far more social benefits than costs), those of us who experience negative life events should be less reliant on these social practices.

What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others?

Since the 60s, researchers have looked into what makes people more resilient.  Like most personality aspects, resilience does appear to be around 50% heritable in men but a bit less for women (Boardman, Blalock, & Button, 2008).  Other factors that have been found to be correlated with resilience include family cohesion and warmth, use of external support systems, sense of adventure, courage, humor, the ability to work hard, the ability to endure and find outlets for emotions, having a sense of a secure base, self-worth and self-esteem, sense of self-efficacy, and a focus on the future (Lemay & Ghazal, 2001).  Not all of these factors are easily teachable, however.

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP)

The PRP was developed at the University of Pennsylvania for research on resiliency with children.  It was later adapted for adults (in the military) to help soldiers be more resilient.  The first module on resilience includes six core competencies targeted to build resilience (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride, 2011).  These are listed below with brief descriptions.  It is suggested that building one or more of the following competencies can have significant positive effects on your resiliency.

  1. Self-Awareness. Practice being aware of your impulses, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  Identify patterns in each that might be counterproductive to your well-being.
  2. Self-Regulation.  Once you are aware of your impulses, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, practice regulating them in a way that helps you achieve your goals.
  3. Optimism. Optimism is not a disconnection from reality, rather it is the choice to see the good in yourself, others, and situations—especially when a focus on the bad will have a deleterious effect on your well-being.  Ask yourself what good can come out of bad situations, or at the very least, what can be learned from the experience.
  4. Mental Agility. Mental agility is thinking accurately and flexibly, engaging in perspective taking, while being willing to try new strategies.  Practice seeing challenges from different perspectives.
  5. Character Strengths. Identify your strengths and the strengths of others with whom you can count on in a time of need.  How can those strengths be leveraged to overcome challenges and meet goals?
  6. Connection. Build a strong and positive social network through communication, empathy, and a willingness to ask for, as well as offer help.

Your genetic makeup is only about half the story.  You have the ability to become a more resilient person by working on the competencies above.  Don't expect to be immune to negative emotions—experiencing the negative including pain, loss, and grief is a healthy and normal part of the human condition, and can actually contribute to overall well-being.  It is the rumination or even just wasting time dwelling on the negative that is problematic and disruptive to positive emotions and well-being.  If failure is defined as falling down and not getting back up, then rumination would be falling down and staying down for too long.  Life will knock you down, that is guaranteed.  Unless it is a fatal blow (i.e. death), use your resilience, get back up, and do it quickly.  Your well-being will thank you for it!

Action Items

  1. Self-Awareness. For 10 minutes, write down as much as you can about what is on your mind and what you are feeling.
  2. Self-Regulation.  Look at what you wrote and identify what is positive and what is negative.  Try framing the negative into positive statements, or at least less negative ones.
  3. Optimism. Look at those negative items on your list.  What good can come from those items?  Are they really as bad as you think they are?
  4. Mental Agility. Choose one negative item on your list and think of as many ways as possible to diffuse that negative (i.e., if it is a problem, think of solutions).
  5. Character Strengths. List as many strengths of yours as you can, and think about how you can apply those strengths to the negatives on your list.
  6. Connection. Think of all the people who can help you mitigate the negatives on your list or even make them go away.  Then, ask for help, and think of ways you can help them in return.

Boardman, J. D., Blalock, C. L., & Button, T. M. M. (2008). Sex differences in the heritability of resilience. Twin Research and Human Genetics: The Official Journal of the International Society for Twin Studies, 11(1), 12–27. doi:10.1375/twin.11.1.12
Lemay, R., & Ghazal, H. (2001). Resilience and positive psychology: finding hope. Child and Family, 5(1), 10–21.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic. Resilience processes in development. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 227–238.
Reivich, K. J., Seligman, M. E. P., & McBride, S. (2011). Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. American Psychologist, 66(1), 25–34. doi:10.1037/a0021897

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