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Understanding, and Nurturing, Resilience and Adaptability

Posted Jul 12 2012 9:29am

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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