Emotional Resilience – The Secret to Happiness

emotional resilience – the secret to happiness

Peter Kramer, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at from Brown University Medical School, talks about resilience, not happiness, being the opposite of depression. Resilient people bounce back from failure.

“Resilience is like a padding for the inevitable hardship human beings are bound to face.”
—Martin Seligman

The American Psychological Association (2021) defines personal resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress… bouncing back”. George Bonnano (2004), Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia described it as “the capacity to continue to move forward in the face of difficulty”.

Resilience isn’t simply bouncing back; it’s about using adversity to gain knowledge and skills and bounce forward. The ability to bounce forward and grow from adversity is the hallmark of resilient individuals. Instead of falling into despair or hiding from problems with unhealthy coping strategies, resilient people face life's difficulties head on. This doesn’t mean that they experience less distress, grief, or anxiety than other people do. It means they handle such difficulties in ways that foster strength and growth. Resilience allows you to remain strong, energetic, optimistic and committed in the face of difficulty. Resilience means being flexible and adaptable to change. It means finding opportunity for growth within challenges.

George Bonanno is responsible for conducting pioneering research in the field of bereavement and trauma. It showed that resilience is the most common, natural reaction to loss or trauma. In other words, the classical view of the cycle of grief model is not always the best way to understand how react to loss.

For the first time, Bonnano showed a natural resilience as the main component of grief and trauma reactions in people who face major losses, such as the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, having suffered sexual abuse as a child, or losing a loved one in a traumatic or stressful event such as a car crash, as the victim of violence, or in a major international event such as the World Trade Centre collapse of 9-11.

Philosophical arguments aside, why are some people more resilience than others? Here are seven characteristics that more resilient people typically possess.

  • Emotion regulation. The ability to stay calm under pressure. Controlling emotions, attention and behaviour. Important for forming relationships, succeeding at work and maintaining health. People who lack the ability to do this find it hard to build and maintain friendships, as negativity can be exhausting and a turnoff for others
  • Impulse control. The extent to which you control your impulses. For example, those with low impulse control may blurt out inappropriate comments and give voice to every thought as they think them. Their desires will often win out over their rational mind. This is closely related to emotion regulation – people who are strong on impulse control tend to be high on emotion regulation.
  • Optimism. The belief that things will change for the better. Resilient, optimistic people have hope for the future and believe that they can control the direction of their lives. They tend to be physically healthier, less likely to suffer depression, do better at school and are more productive at work. Optimism implies that we believe we have the ability to handle the adversity that will inevitably arise in the future.
  • Causal analysis. The habitual way you explain good and bad things that happen to you (your 'explanatory' style). A person's ability to accurately identify the causes of their problems, in order to not make the same mistake over and over again. The explanatory style can be coded on three dimensions: personal (me/not me), permanent (always/not always) and pervasive (everything/not everything) ways of thinking.
  • Self-efficacy. Belief that you can solve the problems you are likely to experience and your faith in your ability to succeed. Our sense that we are effective in the world. People who have faith in their ability often emerge as leaders, whilst those who aren't confident about their efficacy find themselves lost in the crowd.
  • Empathy. How well you're able to read other people's cues as to their psychological and emotional states. Some of us are adept at interpreting the non-verbal behaviours of others and determining what they are thinking and feeling. Others are unable to place themselves in the other person's shoes, estimating what the person must feel and predicting what they are likely to do.
  • Reaching out. Resilience is not just about overcoming, steering through and bouncing back from adversity. It also enables us to enhance the positive aspects of life. Resilience is the source of our ability to reach out. Yet for some people, who learned early on in life that embarrassment was to be avoided at all costs, reaching out is far from easy.