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Understanding, and Nurturing, Resilience and Adaptability

Over and over again—in nat­ural dis­as­ters, after the SARS epi­demic, fol­low­ing the loss of a child or spouse—Bonanno’s lon­gi­tu­di­nal stud­ies on loss and trauma revealed the exact same pat­tern at the pop­u­la­tion level. No mat­ter how bad the trauma, rates of PTSD never exceeded one-third, and rates of resilience were always found in at least one-third and never more than two-thirds of the population.

This pat­tern of response is so ubiq­ui­tous, and so con­sis­tent, it begs the ques­tion: Why are we, as a species, designed this way?” asks Bonanno.

One pos­si­ble answer is that the design ensures that there is always at least a siz­able minor­ity, or even a major­ity, to take care of those deeply affected by a trauma.

Per­sonal resilience has a dizzy­ingly long list of cor­re­lates. Although it would be impos­si­ble for us to give ade­quate treat­ment to all of them here, it is worth tak­ing some time to go over a few of the more salient ones. Among these, innate per­son­al­ity traits like opti­mism and con­fi­dence have emerged as some of the most pro­tec­tive assets against life’s stres­sors. Think of Bella and Jack at Ling­field orphan­age: Accord­ing to Moskovitz’s study, they were able to charm the adults and func­tion with self-agency at the orphan­age, cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive feed­back loop with the staff and their fam­i­lies that resulted in bet­ter and bet­ter care. This ego-resiliency—defined as the capac­ity to over­come, steer through, or bounce back from adversity—was first noted by devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists Jack and Jeanne Block in 1968, in a highly regarded lon­gi­tu­di­nal study doc­u­ment­ing the lives of one hun­dred young adults over more than thirty years. In addi­tion to ego-resiliency, the Block study mea­sured a char­ac­ter­is­tic they called ego-control, or the degree to which an indi­vid­ual has the abil­ity to delay grat­i­fi­ca­tion in ser­vice of future goals. Sub­jects exhibit­ing the com­bi­na­tion of ego-resiliency and ego-control were bet­ter able to adapt flex­i­bly to dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances and suc­ceed in the midst of challenges.

Such per­son­al­ity traits are rooted in belief sys­tems that allow one to cog­ni­tively reap­praise sit­u­a­tions and reg­u­late emo­tions, turn­ing life’s prover­bial lemons into lemon­ade. Social psy­chol­o­gists refer to this as har­di­ness, a sys­tem of thought based, broadly, on three main tenets: (1) the belief that one can find a mean­ing­ful pur­pose in life, (2) the belief that one can influ­ence one’s sur­round­ings and the out­come of events, and (3) the belief that pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences will lead to learn­ing and growth. Con­sid­er­ing this, it should come as no sur­prise that peo­ple of faith also report greater degrees of resilience.

Psy­chol­o­gist Ken­neth Parga­ment has spent the lion’s share of his aca­d­e­mic career inves­ti­gat­ing the links between reli­gion and resilience. In addi­tion to offer­ing all of the ben­e­fits of a community—including sup­port groups and cop­ing meth­ods for peo­ple finan­cially or socially disenfranchised—Pargament attrib­utes the power of reli­gion to its invo­ca­tion of the sacred. His work specif­i­cally dis­tin­guishes between sec­u­lar cop­ing mech­a­nisms and sacred ones, those that work in direct col­lab­o­ra­tion with a god by either cre­at­ing a part­ner­ship or rely­ing on the utter relin­quish­ment of con­trol. As anthro­pol­o­gist Clif­ford Geertz wrote in his sem­i­nal essay “Reli­gion as a Cul­tural System”:

The strange opac­ity of cer­tain empir­i­cal events, the dumb sense­less­ness of intense or inex­orable pain, and the enig­matic unac­count­abil­ity of gross iniq­uity all raise the uncom­fort­able sus­pi­cion that per­haps the world, and hence man’s life in the world, has no gen­uine order at all—no empir­i­cal reg­u­lar­ity, no emo­tional form, no moral coher­ence. And the reli­gious response to this sus­pi­cion is in each case the same: the for­mu­la­tion, by means of sym­bols, of an image of such a gen­uine order of the world which will account for, and even cel­e­brate, the per­ceived ambi­gu­i­ties, puz­zles, and para­doxes in human expe­ri­ence. The effort is not to deny the –undeniable—that there are unex­plained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just—but to deny that there are inex­plic­a­ble events, that life is unen­durable, and that jus­tice is a mirage.

This con­nec­tion between reli­gious faith (or, more broadly, a per­sonal spir­i­tual cos­mol­ogy) and resilience presents an intrigu­ing rejoin­der to athe­ist crit­ics of reli­gious beliefs. While such beliefs may or may not be true, they may nonethe­less be adap­tive. That is, reli­gious belief per­sists and thrives, in part, not because it nec­es­sar­ily guar­an­tees per­sis­tence of one’s soul in the next life, but pre­cisely because it con­fers a mea­sure of psy­cho­log­i­cal resilience upon its possessors.

Of course, reli­gious prac­ti­tion­ers are not the only group that exhibits a high degree of resilience. Cul­tural iden­tity also plays a role. For exam­ple, researchers found that His­pan­ics deemed at high risk by all the stan­dard indi­ca­tors appeared health­ier as a group when they expressed a strong attach­ment to their His­panic her­itage. Such a find­ing sug­gests that mem­bers of a cul­ture affirm­ing strong in-group loy­al­ties will exhibit greater per­sonal resilience, a point we will revisit in greater depth in our com­ing dis­cus­sion of cooperation.

– Excerpted from RESILIENCE: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. Copy­right © 2012 by Andrew Zolli. Reprinted with per­mis­sion from Free Press, a Divi­sion of Simon & Schus­ter, Inc.

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