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Perception is key to resilience: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as a chance to learn and grow?
Garmezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University
of Minnesota, met thousands of children in his four decades of research.
But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with
an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at
school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in
between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make
any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure
that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the
ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with
a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.
boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He
belonged to a cohort of kids - the first of many - whom Garmezy would go on
to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult
circumstances. These were the children who exhibited a trait Garmezy
would later identify as “resilience.” (He is widely credited with being
the first to study the concept in an experimental setting).
years, Garmezy would visit schools across the country, focussing on
those in economically depressed areas, and follow a standard protocol.
He would set up meetings with the principal, along with a school social
worker or nurse, and pose the same question: Were there any children
whose backgrounds had initially raised red flags - kids who seemed likely
to become problem kids - who had instead become, surprisingly, a source of
“What I was saying was, ‘Can you identify stressed children who
are making it here in your school?’" Garmezy said, in a 1999 interview.
“There would be a long pause after my inquiry before the answer came. If I had said, ‘Do you have kids in this school who seem to be
troubled?,’ there wouldn’t have been a moment’s delay. But to be asked
about children who were adaptive and good citizens in the school and
making it even though they had come out of very disturbed
backgrounds - that was a new sort of inquiry. That’s the way we began.”
presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have
it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but
on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never
experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are.
It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other
environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do
you succumb or do you surmount?
threats can come in various guises. Some are the result of low
socioeconomic status and challenging home conditions (those are the
threats studied in Garmezy’s work). Often, such threats - parents
with psychological or other problems; exposure to violence or poor
treatment; being a child of problematic divorce - are chronic. Other
threats are acute: experiencing or witnessing a traumatic violent
encounter, for example, or being in an accident.
What matters is the
intensity and the duration of the stressor. In the case of acute
stressors, the intensity is usually high. The stress resulting from
chronic adversity, Garmezy wrote, might be lower - but it “exerts repeated
and cumulative impact on resources and adaptation and persists for many
months and typically considerably longer.”
to Garmezy’s work on resilience, most research on trauma and negative
life events had a reverse focus. Instead of looking at areas of
strength, it looked at areas of vulnerability, investigating the
experiences that make people susceptible to poor life outcomes (or that
lead kids to be “troubled,” as Garmezy put it). Garmezy’s work opened
the door to the study of protective factors: the elements of an
individual’s background or personality that could enable success
despite the challenges they faced.
Garmezy retired from research before
reaching any definitive conclusions - his career was cut short by
early-onset Alzheimer’s - but his students and followers were able to
identify elements that fell into two groups: individual, psychological
factors and external, environmental factors, or disposition on the one
hand and luck on the other.
1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the
results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a
group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from
before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d
monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero,
poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children
came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and
happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.”
Like Garmezy, she soon
discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the
same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior
problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health
problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the
remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young
adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success - and
they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.
was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals
in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three
decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that
several elements predicted resilience.
Some elements had to do with
luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive
caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another,
quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how
the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient
children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were
autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a
“positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these
children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote.
Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists
call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not
their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children
saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a
scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard
deviations away from the standardization group.
also discovered that resilience could change over time. Some resilient
children were especially unlucky: they experienced multiple strong
stressors at vulnerable points and their resilience evaporated.
Resilience, she explained, is like a constant calculation: Which side of
the equation weighs more, the resilience or the stressors? The
stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. Most
people, in short, have a breaking point.
On the flip side, some people
who weren’t resilient when they were little somehow learned the skills
of resilience. They were able to overcome adversity later in life and
went on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way
through. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be
Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers
College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been
studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and
others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing
with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that
variation might come from.
Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an
observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response
system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with
other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using
that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the
question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently
or effectively than others?
the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception:
Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to
learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as
traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a
‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term:
PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate.
The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how
negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be
traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focuses on
acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who
study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly).
something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you
might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled
with meaning - perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain
disease, say, or to closer ties with the community - then
it may not be seen as a trauma (indeed, Werner found that resilient
individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual
and religious support than those who weren’t).
The experience isn’t
inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological
construal. It’s for this reason,
Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of
themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life
outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological
data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not
predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a
negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it
endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t
guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that
adversity becomes traumatizing.
good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make
ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno
said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has
shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways - to
reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or
in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally
“hot” - changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can
train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems
to have lasting effects.
Similar work has been done with explanatory styles - the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman,
the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the
field of positive psychology: Seligman found that training people to
change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events
aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing
rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”),
and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather
than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and
less prone to depression.
The same goes for locus of control:
not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and
performing better but changing your locus from external to internal
leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective
work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then,
seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience
where there was none.
the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less
likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate
stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human
condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can
take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and
over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is
the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling
Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible
and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it,
frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an
enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be
In December the New York Times Magazinepublished an essay
called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience.’ “It pointed out that
the word is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning
and link it to vague concepts like 'character'. But resilience doesn’t
have to be an empty or vague concept. In fact, decades of research have
revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience
is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. In recent years,
we’ve taken to using the term sloppily - but our sloppy usage doesn’t mean
that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest
the time and energy to understand what “resilience” really means.
About the Author
Maria Konnikova is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, where she writes regularly on psychology and science.