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The Surprising Truth About Becoming Resilient

January 08, 2024


  • Rugged individualism is overrated.
  • Personal resilience depends as much on others as on us.
  • Our environment shapes our physical and mental health.

Resiliency—the ability to recover quickly from difficulties—has been a hot topic recently. It’s
easy to understand why, of course: The entire world has faced numerous problems in the
past few years that few of us ever anticipated.

In that environment, why wouldn’t we want to learn how to build our physical, mental and
emotional resolve to rise above the challenges?

But what if our thinking about what it takes to become more resilient is flawed—or at least
incomplete? What if the path to overcoming adversity looks significantly different from what
we’ve been told it looks like? Armed with a more detailed picture of resilience, we might be
able to boost our resolve faster and better—and in doing so, live our best life.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some potentially surprising aspects of building your
resilience—courtesy of Michael Ungar, PhD, author of Change Your World: The Science of
Resilience and the True Path to Success and co-director of the Resilience Research Centre.
His research reveals how biology and sociology can combine to help people build their lives
for strength and adaptability to challenges large and small.

The need for resilience

Of course, being resilient can potentially take you far in life. If you don’t crumble when the
chips are down, you stand a better chance of making progress toward your goals—be they
personal or professional.

Trouble is, our resiliency isn’t doing so well these days. An American Psychological Association
study found that just 16 percent of people had what the APA defined as high resilience. More
than a quarter (26 percent) had a low level of resilience—meaning they scored poorly on a
scale that measured their ability to make it through stressful events and snap back from bad

Clearly, the research suggests that a significant number of Americans could use a big
resiliency boost. And even those of us with “average” levels of resiliency could probably
benefit if we improved our ability to transition through adversity and come out the other side
in good shape.

The myth of resiliency

So how might we best pursue the goal of greater resilience in our lives?

Chances are, when you’ve heard people talk about being resilient, they’ve used terms like
“intestinal fortitude,” “positive thinking” and “digging deep” inside themselves to overcome
trials. The message in those statements is that each of us, as an individual, needs to find some
untapped well of inner strength within ourselves and “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” if
we want to be more resilient.

But it’s not that simple, according to Ungar. Yes, our own efforts are important. But resilience
also requires individuals to have the resources that bolster well-being. Such resources
need to come not simply from within, but from without—from families, communities and
governments that can provide these resources in ways individuals value.

The upshot: The idea that resiliency is an individualist quality that’s found inside us is a myth.
Instead, it also stems from—and is strengthened by—the relationships, institutions and
environments surrounding all of us. Says Ungar: “Just as our environment shapes our mental
health, it also predicts our physical well-being. The social, political, and natural environments
in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances, and time management
than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviors.”

Key drivers of resilience

In his book, Ungar outlines several concepts he says are key to understanding how resilience
actually works in today’s complex and challenging modern world. Here are some of the most
important factors he sees affecting personal resilience, along with advice for practical steps
to make them work for you.

1. Intimate and sustaining relationships

Environment, genetics, habits and other factors contribute to a person’s ability to be
resilient. But one of the biggest and most important factors is the quality of their human
relationships. Specifically, the unconditional love of even just one person is enough to help
build the foundation for resilience.

Feeling loved helps people better endure pain and disappointment—and grow emotionally,
spiritually and physically. At any age, intimate relationships help a person manage and bounce
back from stressors and hardships. That’s why it’s so important to build and cultivate them.

2. Other relationships

Our resilience depends on other societal factors beyond the nurturing bonds of close
loved ones and the support of friends and colleagues. Ungar is critical of what he calls a
misplaced faith in individualism, and instead highlights the value of a structured society
that can provide for the needs of its citizens. That doesn’t mean resiliency requires big
government or expansive social programs, necessarily. But it does demand an authority
that can provide the basic foundations for people’s success. That means investments in
education and workforce development, and a certain baseline civic responsibility that is
essential to resilience.

3. A powerful identity

Our sense of self-worth is shaped in large part by how we are seen by others. So participation
in society, even while maintaining a strong sense of individuality, is key. The key to a powerful
identity—and to health, happiness and financial well-being—isn’t found in books about
superfoods or 90-day abs, says Ungar. Instead, it comes from the environment around us
and how we respond to it.

4. A positive mental attitude

Positive thinking can have value in our lives, says Ungar. But it’s just a small part of becoming
more resilient, not the key. When it comes to sustained resilience, meditation, mindfulness and
other internal resources might have their place. But it’s more important to focus on broader
strategies for life improvement that are more likely to produce enduring psychological
growth—for example, building or joining a community of people around you, finding a more
satisfying job and celebrating your culture.

5. Environment

Success at developing resilience depends more on our environment than our individual
biology, according to Ungar, who notes that adults can show neurological and even genetic
changes related to stress. Environments shape the way we respond to stress, affecting our
thoughts, feelings and behaviors. His advice: Replace a bad environment with a good enough
one, and our vulnerabilities that reduce our resilience can be muted. Such change can take
place in ways large and small—both personally (say, leaving an unsatisfying marriage) and
professionally (working to improve conditions at a business).

6. Financial well-being

It should surprise no one that healthy finances help make people more resilient in response
to challenges and changes. The tricky part is that the act of making money carries its own
set of serious stressors. The big difference between good stress and bad stress in the
workplace? The former is character building, and comes from realizing a goal we want to
achieve; the latter stems from excessive or exhausting expectations imposed by bad bosses
and unhealthy environments. So while it’s important to build financial resilience, it has to be
balanced with emotional well-being.

7. A sense of control

One size does not fit all. In a nation of 330 million people, resilience—whether it’s shaped
by those around us or forged within ourselves—takes many forms. Being able to make the
decisions that affect our own lives is essential, says Ungar. Some of the successful selftailored
strategies he’s seen work include:

• Let yourself fail.

• Let yourself be stressed.

• Be soft rather than hard.

• Get less help.

• Be selfish, but not too selfish.

• Be future-oriented.

• Be patient.

Multiple systems working together

The good news, says Ungar, is that there’s momentum building behind the idea that
resilience is not simply the result of inner strength but rather the product of multiple systems
that function well in concert with each other. More people are looking at the world around
them and how its various components can better work together to help us generate greater

As we gain a better understanding of the factors that can help resiliency thrive, we can take
steps aimed at shoring up specific areas that need reinforcements and keeping currently
healthy areas in good shape. Perhaps most important, we can do it together in ways that
help all of us become more resilient.