For 40 years, researchers have been investigating the impact of resilience on health, wellbeing and success. More recently, resilience has gained traction in popular culture, too. Across digital and print media – mothers, employees, trauma survivors and ordinary people are encouraged to harness resilience to improve their lives. In 2015, The New York Times published an article on ‘The profound emptiness of resilience’ – which lamented the overuse and misappropriation of this term in popular culture. Whilst ‘resilience’ is sometimes defined inaccurately, frequent usage of the word suggests it’s an extremely important concept that resonates with people from all sections of society.
Part of the reason dialogue on resilience has entered the mainstream is because – as a concept – it complements contemporary definitions of wellbeing. Wellbeing, as we know it today, favours holistic models of health, many of which have existed for centuries but have garnered exposure in Western countries within the last decade or so. We’ll explore why the concept of resilience holds so much promise in today’s ‘wellbeing-conscious’ world.
Models of Health & Resilience
Depending on who you ask, ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing’ mean various things. The Western biomedical model draws a distinction between physical and mental health. In contrast, alternative models – influenced by Eastern and Ayurvedic philosophies – see the mind and body as inextricably linked. There is compelling evidence to suggest that toolkits such as resilience can help protect the body against various physical illnesses. Given societies’ increased acceptance of the close relationship between mental and physical health, it’s no surprise that resilience has risen to the top of the agenda.
Additionally, the biomedical model assumes that “disease is the single cause of illness” and once the isolated disease has been cured, the body will return to good health. Alternative health models do not assume that disease is behind all illness. Instead, these models try to nurture a solid foundation upon which the individual can self-regulate, avert illness, and achieve an overall sense of wellbeing. Crucially, alternative health models take a holistic approach to healthcare and are concerned with creating balance and equilibrium within the body. When considering this notion of balance, it seems almost identical to the notion of resilience. Resilience is often defined as “the ability to bounce-back from negative events.” In other words, resilience depends on the ability to return to a state of equilibrium after a period of adversity. Perhaps resilience discourse has grown rapidly in recent years because it appeals to our desire to achieve balance and equilibrium in the face of stressful work environments, busy schedules, and unstable economies.
How Can We Develop Resilience?
Norman Garmezy, an early resilience researcher, noticed that some children in his studies appeared to ‘bounce-back’ from trauma or neglect more effectively than others. These children had calm and balanced temperaments but displayed strong social intelligence. Later, developmental psychologists theorised that children were more likely to be resilient if they had formed a strong, trusting attachment with a loving caregiver.
However, all is not lost if resilience is not formed in childhood – it’s a skill that can be nurtured in adulthood too. Negative thoughts such as ‘the world’s out to get me’ can create a victim-mentality which prevents individuals from obtaining or maintaining resilience. According to many psychologists, the degree to which individuals feel in control of their lives (i.e. their locus of control) will determine how resilient they are. Crucially, perceptions are malleable, so if someone feels victimised and powerless in their life – training can enhance their ability to feel in control – thereby facilitating resilience.
Harnessing Resilience – Creating Balance
A recent study aimed at improving health in the workplace found that resilience training lowered levels of depression, reduced sickness-related absence, and increased self-esteem. Employees attended 12 weekly resilience-building sessions, which incorporated a holistic mix of interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling. Encouragingly, this study suggests that resilience is a skill that can be taught in as little as three months!
Rather than prescribing individuals with isolated treatments to reduce workplace absences, this study suggests employers should encourage workers to build strong psychological foundations through resilience training. Resilience appears to improve workers’ overall wellbeing, nurture their ability to self-regulate and improve numerous outcomes for both the business and the individual. Interestingly, this study also found that resilience training improved employees’ perceptions of their overall work-life-balance, suggesting that resilience training helps foster the state of ‘balance’ highly valued in contemporary wellness discourse.
A similar study found employees were more likely to achieve a multitude of positive goals if they harnessed strong foundational resilience. For example, resilience could protect against poor sleep, sickness-related absence, stress, low productivity and low job satisfaction. Importantly, researchers found resilience most useful for protecting against sickness-related absences during periods of high-strain (compared to low-strain). If wellbeing is imagined as a state of balance, it’s unsurprising that individuals in higher-strain environments would require comparatively more resilience skills to enable them to return to a state of equilibrium. For example, if one side of a see-saw is weighed down with adversity, the weight of this adversity will dictate how much resilience is needed on the other side of the see-saw to maintain equilibrium. Indeed, resilience training is likely to be invaluable for sectors where employees are prone to burnout – such as nursing, management and policing.
Crucially, it’s not only workers who might benefit from resilience training. One study showed that resilient mothers were better able to juggle the competing demands of motherhood such as caring for others, timekeeping, sustaining employment and self-care. This suggests resilient mothers are better equipped at fostering the healthy, balanced lifestyle central to contemporary definitions of wellbeing. Moreover, this study found that resilient mothers were more able to promote positive health outcomes for the whole family – not just for themselves. Harnessing resilience is not a selfish goal then! Indeed, scientists have predicted that, if whole communities were taught resilience skills, they’d be better able to work together to help each other bounce-back from natural or political disasters.
Resilience may well be an overused term, but it’s easy to see how this concept has gained such a following. The concept of resilience holds promise for those seeking balance and stability in a very ‘wellbeing-conscious’ era. In the same way that yoga, meditation and rest can rebalance the body after stressful events, resilience can enhance an individual’s ability to return to a state of equilibrium after an adverse experience.
Resilience is a foundational psychological tool which empowers the individual to feel capable of handling uncertainty. Resilience training is not a ‘treatment’ for a disease but rather an investment in an individual’s overall health and wellbeing. Wade and Halligan predict that, in the near future, we’ll stop using the biomedical model of illness to inform our healthcare systems. Indeed, if we continue to incorporate more holistic definitions of wellness into our vocabulary, it is likely that resilience-awareness will become the cornerstone of future healthcare systems.