This week’s article summary is How People Learn to Become Resilient.
With research and work on Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit, resilience—and the question whether it’s more innate or teachable—is currently a popular topic in schools.
As you will see from the New Yorker article below, resilience combines a little of both nature and nurture.
Misfortune and disappointment will befall all of us, yet some are more prone to view sad events as the rule of their life (from a pessimistic lens) while others see them as an aberration in their life story and even as an opportunity to learn and grow.
As someone who has had a peripatetic career (moving to and working in four different schools in four different states), I’ve interviewed for—and not been offered—many jobs and positions. Yet for me, I have never questioned or doubted that my opportunity would eventually come—it’s was a matter of timing, fit, better clarity in my interview responses, etc. While my parents, teachers, and others influenced this positive, optimistic, resilient outlook, I also recognize it was always present in my make up and personality.
The implication for us as teachers is we can help students think and reflect on disappointment through a resilient lens—and as the article attests, a critical external need to develop resilience is a "supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor figure."
Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists.
Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?
The study of resilience focuses on protective factors – the elements that allow a person to thrive in spite of negative circumstances. Protective factors fall into two categories – internal/psychological and external/environmental.
One study in followed children from before they were born into adulthood. Two-thirds of the children grew up in stable, trauma-free backgrounds, while one-third had stresses of some kind. Of the latter group, two-thirds developed serious learning and behavior problems by the age of ten or had mental health issues, incidents of delinquency, or teen pregnancies by 18 – but one-third grew up to be competent, confident, and caring young adults; they achieved academic, domestic, and social success, and were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities.
The most important external variable (basically a matter of luck) was a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor figures.
With regard to internal psychological factors, resilient children:
- Met the world on their own terms
- Were autonomous and independent
- Sought out new experiences
- Had a positive social orientation
- Though not especially gifted, they used whatever skills they had effectively
- Had an internal locus of control – they believed that they, not their circumstances, affected their achievements, that they were the orchestrators of their own fates.
Resilience isn’t a fixed entity. With some children, the stressors in their lives overwhelmed them and they lost the ability to cope – in other words, they had a breaking point. Conversely, some children started off with a low level of resilience and somehow got better at it as the years passed, doing as well as children who had strong resilience from the beginning. Which raises the question of how resilience can be learned.
George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has zeroed in on this question. One of the key aspects of resilience, he’s found, is perception: Do you see an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? The death of a loved one can be traumatic, or it can be seen as tragic but an opportunity to develop a greater awareness of a particular disease. In other words, the long-term impact of traumatic events is not in the events themselves but in how people process them.
The good news is that resilience is a set of skills that can be taught. We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things. People can be taught the cognitive skills of regulating their emotional response, and the new mindset lasts over time.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman has successfully trained people to change their explanatory style from internal to external (Bad events aren’t my fault), from global to specific (This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life), and from permanent to ephemeral (I can change the situation; it’s not fixed) – and the result is that people are more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.