When life is a cruel joke, be the person who laughs it off. Train yourself to be resilient and you’ll get healthier, too.
At one point or another, we’ll all be knocked down by life—a sick child, a lost job, a troubled marriage—and have to resume the everyday business of living with joy and purpose. How well you do that depends on your level of resilience, a.k.a. your “ability to bounce back,” says psychiatrist Dennis Charney, MD, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who has spent decades researching how people do just that. Resilient people are not only less likely to be diagnosed with mental health struggles like PTSD, depression, and anxiety; they also recover more quickly from injury and have better health outcomes for a variety of conditions, like heart problems and osteoarthritis.
Well, that’s great for them, you might be thinking—because one common misconception about resilience is that you either have it or you don’t. But experts agree that it’s a skill you can learn and cultivate. Here’s how.
Let Yourself Feel Sad.
If you’ve ever reacted to some really bad news by collapsing in tears, eating a pint of ice cream, or reaming out your spouse, you might think those were not the coping skills of a particularly resilient person. Actually, they are, says Angela Duckworth, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who interviewed dozens of CEOs, athletes, spelling bee champions, and other highly resilient people for her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. “They were all very quick to share stories about their moments of weakness,” she says. “And I’m not talking about that time you got a B+ on a test. I’m talking about that time you tried to kill your-self, or the years you spent battling an eating disorder. Resilient people are not perfect, and they don’t always know what the hell they’re doing.”
In fact, scientists have found that when animals encounter stressful circumstances, one of the first things their brains do is activate a “hopelessness circuit.” In humans, this can manifest as intense feelings of grief or anger and, sometimes, a profound need to binge-watch Netflix in our pajamas. “We know there’s a period of time when you almost inevitably have to feel despondent,” explains Duckworth. “There’s a neurobiological reason why that lasts for a few days—because it’s only after those feelings clear out that hope can kick in.” That flood of negative feelings may be your brain’s way of grappling with a tough reality: Facing your problems is a key step toward acceptance. “To understand hope, you have to also understand hopelessness,” notes Duckworth.
Of course, if hope doesn’t kick in, such behaviors can be a sign of depression—so talk to your doctor if more than two weeks go by and you’re still struggling, warns Charney: “If you can’t get up and go to work in the morning or you find yourself withdrawing from family and friends, these are warning signs that should not be ignored.” Otherwise, let yourself wallow a bit when you need to—and know that your brain is laying important groundwork for a more resilient frame of mind.
Control What You Can.
Duckworth likes to point to a famous experiment performed by University of Pennsylvania psychology doctoral students in 1967, in which dogs were given mild electric shocks to their back paws. Half the dogs could make the shocks stop by pushing their nose against a panel in their cage; the other half could do nothing. When the same dogs were then subjected to a new round of shocks the next day, the dogs that had control over the previous day’s shocks quickly learned they could jump over a low wall to safety. But two-thirds of the dogs that hadn’t been able to control anything just lay down and whimpered until the shocks were over. “This experiment proved that it isn’t suffering that leads to chronic hopelessness,” says Duckworth. “It’s suffering that you think you can’t control.”
Of course, we often can’t control the outcome of a job interview, surgery, or other stressful experience. But when we busy ourselves with a project related to our problem—whether it’s preparing talking points for the interview, joining a support group for people undergoing the same procedure, or just cleaning the house so as not to live in chaos while life falls apart—we’re building resilience. “These are all ways of empowering yourself, of saying, ”What can I do?“ ” notes Robert Brooks, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Power of Resilience. “If you stay focused on what you can control, you avoid becoming paralyzed by the spiral of blame and by asking, ”Why me?“ We have far more control than we realize over our attitude and response to these situations.”
But Know When to Be Flexible.
“People often ask me, ”Is there such a thing as too much resilience? What if you just keep trying or hoping for something that is never going to happen?“” says Duckworth. Her research suggests that most of us are more likely to give up too soon than hang on to false hope for too long. But she also underscores that good judgment is a critical component of grit. “It’s not resilience if you’re just trying the same thing over and over and expecting change,” she explains. “Trying hard isn’t enough; being resilient means you’re also willing to try differently.” This entails developing your problem-solving skills, says Brooks. If you’re struggling to land a job in a new field, for example, don’t just keep blindly sending out rÃ©sumÃ©s. Instead, sit down with a friend or mentor who can help you pinpoint what hasn’t been working and brainstorm alternative strategies, such as a new way to network or a training program that will add missing skills to your rÃ©sumÃ©. “Step back, consider different options, pick a course of action, and then assess how well this new strategy works,” he advises.
“Good problem-solvers think of new solutions and make necessary changes to their approach.”
You also need to hone what Charney calls “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to reevaluate a traumatic experience in order to grow and recover, rather than letting it limit your life. For the book he coauthored, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Charney interviewed a family friend who was born with spina bifida. “She accepted the reality of her condition, but she didn’t let it limit her view of herself. She learned to swim, and she got into Yale,” he recalls. “Cognitive flexibility doesn’t mean you have to find good in a bad thing, because sometimes there is no good. It means you don’t let this bad thing define you.” For disappointments, like a book proposal that didn’t sell, you might be able to find silver linings fairly quickly; perhaps the failed book sparks a better idea. For major catastrophes, such as the death of a loved one, you may need to enlist a trained therapist to help you find a sense of peace.
Find Resilient Role Models.
Maybe your role model is your mother, who was the first woman in her family to go to college. Or your coworker, who survived a rocky divorce and is now friends with her ex. Your role models don’t need to be people who have dealt with the same challenges you’re facing; they just need to have certain traits or strategies that you can emulate. In fact, you don’t even need to know them personally—as long as their story inspires you. “The goal is to put together your own road map toward recovery,” says Charney. “Imitation is a very powerful way of learning to be resilient.”
Be a Role Model, Too.
“It’s important to pay it forward,” says Charney—and not just because it’s the nice thing to do. Studies show that altruism is key to resilience, and thus good health. People over 55 who volunteered with two or more organizations, for example, had a 44 percent lower chance of dying during the study than nonvolunteers, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
When Brooks surveyed 1,500 adults about their early educational experiences, he found that a majority considered a time when they had been asked to “help out” as essential to building self-esteem and motivation. “Decades later, they remembered when a teacher asked them to tutor another student or help pass out the milk,” he says. “Helping others makes us feel competent, improves our problem-solving abilities, and gives us a larger sense of purpose. All of that translates to more resilience.” You might join a walk to raise funds for the disease that killed your mother or simply share your story in a Facebook group, where it can help people facing the same ordeal.
Talk It Out.
If you have people in your life who believe in your ability to learn and do better—even when you really screw something up—that will help you view the glass as half full.
This doesn’t mean you need your friends to give you pep talks all the time. It can be enough just to have other people in your life who understand what you’re going through. When Charney interviewed former prisoners of war, he learned they had spent hours developing a secret code of taps that allowed them to communicate with one another through the walls of their cells. Women may be especially good at connecting with others facing similar obstacles: “The natural response to stress in women and girls is to reach out, to talk, to share—to feel like, OK, I’m not the only one who is failing,” says Judith V. Jordan, PhD, director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Culturally, we’re taught that this is a sign of weakness, that you should be able to get it together on your own—but I believe it’s resilience in action.”
Know That You're Already Doing It.
It’s fine to hate the worrisome circumstances you’re facing, but consider this benefit: By overcoming stress, you become more resilient. “You can’t just watch Chariots of Fire and be more resilient,” says Duckworth. “You have to be in the race yourself, lose, and then see that it’s not the end of the world.” Going through these kinds of ordeals fires up what psychologists call our neurological “hope circuit”—the purpose of which is to inhibit our hopelessness circuit and override the neurons that trigger feelings of despair. If your current problem feels overwhelming, draw on a past experience and remember how you persevered. In Duckworth’s interviews with “paragons of grit,” she says many of them had a formative experience that inspired them, whether it was rowing on their college crew team or a grueling semester with a tough teacher. “When you can say, ”At least this isn’t as hard as that was“— that’s true grit,” says Duckworth. “Be biased toward hope.”