Blog #38 – Resilience
As made clear in our most recent posts, having a sense of purpose and meaning is undoubtedly a good thing and has been associated with many positive health outcomes, as well as achievement in various areas of life.
We can think of purpose and meaning as the fuel that gets us out of bed early in the morning and facilitates the sense of focus that keeps us committed and moving forward in the areas of life that are most important to us.
While there is no substitute for the self-renewing energy and drive associated with meaning and purpose, this alone does not guarantee that we can face down and cope with the inevitable obstacles and setbacks that life will throw at us.
Perhaps just as important when it comes to successfully navigating the bumpy and uneven tracks that life can present us with is resilience.
We can define resilience in many ways, but it basically relates to how we respond to adversity and setbacks. One of the particular markers of resilience is that it can only manifest in the face of challenging or risky circumstances. We all face such situations at various times, but the nature of resilience is such that you won’t know how resilient you are in a given situation until you face that situation.
You won’t often find me referring to former soccer managers in this series – in fact, this may be the only time – but one of the best ways of describing resilience I have ever heard came from just such an unlikely source. That’s not to slight the fact that sports psychology has generated valuable insights, but in this particular instance a ‘layperson’ effectively thinking out loud came up with a term that no-one had used before and which, subsequently, has crept into the public consciousness when resilience-related matters are discussed.
During a post-match interview in 2004, Iain Dowie, the then manager of Crystal Palace, who, at the time, were struggling near the foot of the English Premier League, praised his team’s efforts on the day in question by referring to their “great bouncebackability”.
At the time, his use of what was effectively a made-up word provoked amusement, but what he had actually managed to do was to sum up the essence of resilience in the kind of clear and concise way that all too often proves beyond academic researchers when they attempt to communicate about their areas of interest with a general audience.
Simply put, there is no better way to sum up resilience – it relates to bouncebackability, our ability to bounce back from setbacks.
As with so much else related to the mind, individuals will react differently to adversity. Some of us draw strength from it, tap into hidden inner resources, and emerge stronger from the experience. Others may not fare quite so well, and instead, when confronted with danger or setbacks, may, to use unscientific but clear language, fold like the proverbial deckchair. Again, as mentioned earlier, there is no way of knowing how you will respond to a given set of circumstances until you experience them. You may surprise yourself by how well you cope or how badly.
The contemporary psychological study of resilience focuses largely on trying to understand healthy development in the face of exposure to risk. This deliberate positive-oriented emphasis (as opposed to being pre-occupied with individuals floundering in the face of adversity) emerged in the 1970s, with researchers such as Ann Masten to the fore.
Masten has gone on to become synonymous with resilience research over the following decades and one of her many contributions has been to coin the term “ordinary magic.”
This term arises from initial assumptions subsequently overturned based upon what researchers discovered during the course of their research. In the 1970s, resilience researchers began to study children identified as being at particular risk, arising from the circumstances in which they were being brought up. Whereas they assumed that the bulk of children in such high-risk categories would be floundering, they instead found that many were actually developing quite well.
Masten has noted many times in her writing and in talks that initially it was thought that young people exhibiting resilience and overcoming risk factors present in their life were somehow exceptional, with words like “invulnerable” and “invincible” used in association with them. However, she points out that it subsequently became apparent that the most striking aspect of resilience is the extent to which it was widespread, and not its manifestation in select cases, hence the term “ordinary magic.”
She states that the capacity for exhibiting resilience appears to reside in basic human adaptational systems, i.e., that it has evolutionary roots. Masten outlines the point of view that if these systems are protected and functioning well, then individual development will be robust, even in the face of severe adversity; however, she adds that if there is impairment prior to or arising from adversity, then the risk for problems in development becomes much greater. She adds that these risks become particularly more pressing if the environmental hazards are prolonged.
So, the good news is that we appear to be wired for resilience and therefore many of us may well be surprised by the coping resources we are able to tap into in crises or challenging circumstances.
However, it is also worth pointing out that for all Iain Dowie’s talk about bouncebackability, Crystal Palace ultimately were relegated from the Premier League that season!
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.