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Find ways to bounce back

All of us have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma in our lives. But how we respond to these has a big impact on our wellbeing. We often cannot choose what happens to us, but in principle we can choose our own attitude to what happens. In practice it's not always easy, but one of the most exciting findings from recent research is that resilience, like many other life skills, can be learned. 

What do we mean by resilience?

Resilience comes from the Latin word resilio - to jump back- and is increasingly used in everyday language to describe our ability to cope with and bounce back from adversity. Some people describe it as the ability to bend instead of breaking when under pressure or difficulty, or the ability to persevere and adapt when faced with challenges.[1] The same abilities also help to make us more open to and willing to take on new opportunities.[1] In this way being resilient is more than just survival, it includes letting go, learning and growing as well as finding healthy ways to cope.[2]

Research shows that resilience isn't a rare quality found in a few, extraordinary people. One expert in the subject, Dr Ann Masten, describes it as 'ordinary magic' noting that it comes from our normal, everyday capabilities, relationships and resources.[3] She argues that resilience isn't a static characteristic of an individual but comprises many factors, internal and external. And we can be naturally resilient in some situations or at sometimes in our lives and not others. Each person and each situation is different.[4]

We can all learn resilience skills

All of us can take action to increase our resilience. We are all likely to experience ups and downs so building resiliency is valuable. We can't always predict or control what life throws at us, but we can build a range of skills and nurture our resources to help us respond flexibly, effectively deal with challenges, recover more quickly and even learn and grow as a result.[1][5][6] It can even lower our risk of depression and anxiety and enable us to age successfully.[1][4] What's more the same skills can help us manage fear of taking on new opportunities and so help us develop in other ways too.

Our resilience is influenced by three key sets of factors: our development as a child and as a teenager; external factors such as our relationships with others or having a faith; and internal factors such as how we choose to interpret events, manage our emotions and regulate our behaviour.[1][4]

As parents or those that work with children, we can do much to help build resilience of kids and teenagers. Whilst as adults we can't change our childhoods, there is plenty we can do to build our resilience within the second and third sets of factors, and indeed research is showing that resilience is developable in adults as well as in children.[1][4][7]

Building Resilience Skills

There is a saying that most of us have heard: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger" and science has shown that it does have some truth in it. Experiencing some adversity during our lives does increase our resilience by enabling us to learn ways of coping and identify and engage our support network. It also gives us a sense of mastery over past adversities, which helps us to feel we will be able to cope in the future. We have probably all experienced things as stressful initially (for example a new task at school or at work) but later find we are no longer phased by similar activities. Importantly though, for us to learn through such struggles our coping skills and resources can be taxed but not overwhelmed.[8]

Psychologists Dr Karen Reivich, Dr Andrew Shatté (along with Dr Jane Gillham) argue that most of us aren't as prepared as we might be to face adversity and so we run the risk of giving up or feeling helpless in the face of difficulty. But, by changing the way we think about adversity, we can boost how resilient we are. Based on extensive research, they believe that our capacity for resilience is not fixed or in our genes, nor are there limits on how resilient we are able to be.

They have developed and studied a number of cognitive and behavioural skills that have been scientifically shown to build resilience in children and adults.[1]With effort and commitment we can learn these and put them into practice ourselves. Seven are detailed in the book:The Resilience Factor(see Resources below) and some of the actions suggested by Action for Happiness are based on these.

Many of the other actions in this website that can help you and others around you be happier, are also strategies that can help you to become more resilient. If you are already putting some of these into practice it is likely that you are already on your way to developing some useful tools and techniques that will also be valuable during tougher times[9].

relationships and resilience

One of the key external sources of resilience is our network of relationships with other people such as family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.[1][4][8] Taking time to nurture our relationships is a vital part of resilience building and helps to create resilient and happier communities.

Many of these relationships are reciprocal - we can be there to support others as well as them supporting us. Support can range from simply making a cup of tea and listening to practical help such as looking after the kids, shopping or help around the house. A support network can also be a source of ideas and advice to help think things through. Strong social networks also build happier communities, which helps to increase the resilience of all of us.

And support isn't just there for when times are tough, sharing good news is also important for building our relationships and increasing happiness.

Knowing when we need help and asking for it is an important part of resilience. There may also be times when we need to seek professional support for example from a doctor, charitable foundation or advice centre, counselor or therapist.

realistic optimism

A key ingredient in resilience is optimism. This is not about 'unrealistic' optimism or denying that anything bad has happened, or might happen. This is just as unhealthy a strategy as always expecting the worst. Realistic optimists are those who engage with their problems as challenges, which can include planning for worst case scenarios. They actively appreciate the positive aspects of the situation without denying the negative. They do not delude themselves into thinking they are invincible or that there is no problem (as an unrealistic optimist might) and they do not resign themselves to their fate in thinking that nothing can be done (as a pessimist would). They aspire or hope for positive outcomes and actively work towards them.[1] In other words, they recognise what they can control and do something about and what they can't, and so focus their efforts accordingly.

Research indicates that optimists are more likely to cope better, seek support from others and less likely to withdraw from those around them. Through facing their issues and seeking advice it is easier to see things more clearly and rationally - they can therefore be more realistic than pessimists. They are skilled at finding benefits to the situations they find themselves in and they experience less negative emotions and stress.And not because they ignore the difficulties of life, but precisely because they take them on.[10]

Finding benefit from adversity

Our ability to cope with adversity can be influenced by how we are able to interpret the situation we are in or what has happened to us. Finding a way to put it in perspective, such as thinking of those in worse situations and/or finding a way to make sense of it can be helpful. A related but separate process, finding some benefit that has come as a result of the difficulty can also be constructive.[11] This isn't about denial of what happened, nor putting an unrealistically positive spin on things but, where possible, trying to find some good from negative events can be a healthy coping strategy.[8]

Benefit finding in adversity isn't rare. For example one study on breast cancer survivors, found that two thirds of the women participating reported that their lives changed for the better after developing the disease. Some of the benefits they cited included their illness being a "wake-up call", which forced them to focus on what truly mattered to them.[12] Likewise other studies have shown that individuals who coped effectively with other conditions such as HIV and heart disease also had a similar tendency to find benefit in their condition.[13]

Experiences that bring people face to face with the fragility of life can bring them a sharpened appreciation of their relationships, for example, and of the importance of living in the present. Other trauma survivors have said they have a new belief in their own strength and resources, they are more comfortable with intimacy and are more compassionate with others who are suffering, and have developed a deeper, more satisfying philosophy of life.[13]

Actively seeking possible benefits over time, however minor, can help the process of recovery, reduce the likelihood of depression and so build our resilience.11 What is certainly important is taking the time to reflect and process things to enable us not only to understand and find benefit in what has happened, but also to build it into our lives rather than ignore it.[13]

However, a strong note of caution - finding benefit is highly individual and it isn't possible for everyone and every situation. Indeed it can depend on the nature of the negative event. We should not feel that we must find benefits, nor feel guilty or shameful when we really can't.[13]

post traumatic growth

Recovery from major trauma, pain, or loss is a big achievement, it is difficult and takes time. It is not uncommon that some degree of change is a part of that process whether it is a change in our circumstances or how we feel about our lives. In some instances this change can be profound - a change in who we discover we are or how we focus the direction of our lives and research indicates that some people experience a significant personal growth as a result of major negative events.

This is what is known as 'post-traumatic growth' (PTG) and is defined by psychologists as "a positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances".[14] PTG tends to surprise people, and is not usually a conscious aim. PTG results from a fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and or the world.[14] A significant amount of research in recent years has focused on the factors that characterise such growth. These include:

  • a 'seismic' disruption to how we see ourselves;
  • the recognition that we have changed in some significant way for the better as a result of the event;
  • a reconfiguring of how we make meaningful sense of the world;
  • deepening personal relationships through sharing and depending on others;
  • development or mastery of new skills;
  • re-prioritisation of goals and priorities, or setting of different ones; and even
  • a greater spiritual belief or connection to something bigger.[11]

Finding benefit in adversity is relatively common and transient and is seen as a mechanism to cope with the event whereas PTG requires active processing of the meaning of the change and time to identify, set and make progress towards new goals. Often PTG results in a change in our identity and behaviour and so is apparent to others.[11]

The research does not suggest that there is anything inherently good about a trauma or painful loss - of course there isn't. But what the research does show is that when events happen that force us to stop, to step out of our day to day lives and to confront issues we might not usually have to, it is possible for some good to come from the struggle.


[1]Reivich, K & Shatté, A. (2003). The Resilience Factor: Seven keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life's hurdles. NY: Broadway Books

[2]Styles, C (2011) Brilliant Positive Psychology: What Makes Us Happy, Optimistic And Motivated

[3]Masten, A.S. (2001). Ordinary magic. Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238.

[4]Masten, A.S, & Wright, M.O. (2010). Resilience over the lifespan: Developmental perspectives on resistance, recovery and transformation. Handbook of Adult Resilience, 213-237.

[5]Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G.(2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence, Psychological Inquiry,15,1-18

[6]Masten, A.S., Cutuli, J.J., Herbers, J.E. & Reed, M.J. (2009). Resilience in Development. In Eds: S.J. Lopez, & C.R. Snyder, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:Oxford University Press

[7]Avey, J.B., Luthans, F., & Jensen, S.M. (2009). Psychological capital: A positive resource for combating employee stress and turnover. Human Resource Management, 48, 677-693. See also: Luthans, F. (2002). The need for and meaning of positive organizational behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 695-706.

[8]Seery, M.D., Holman, E.A., & Silver, R.C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger: Culmulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025-1041.

[9]Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting The Life You Want. Chapter 6. New York: Penguin Press

[10]Carver, C.S., Scheier, M.F., Miller, C.J., & Fulford, D. (2009). Optimism. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press

[11]Davis, C.G. & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2009). Making sense of loss, perceiving benefits and posttraumatic growth. In Eds: S.J. Lopez, & C.R. Snyder, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:Oxford University Press

[12]Taylor, S.E., Lichtman, R.R., & Wood, J.V. (1984). Attributions, beliefs about control and adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 489-502.

[13]Lechner, S.C., Tennen, H. & Affleck, G. Benefit finding and Growth. (2009) In Eds: S.J. Lopez, & C.R. Snyder, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:Oxford University Press

[14]Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G.(2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical


Find ways to bounce back

Resilience 200