Can you keep smiling under adversity?

Can you keep smiling, even under extreme adversity? Photo: Louise Kennerley

Last week I caught up with a close friend who has just been through a marriage breakdown and had a really tough year, but she is still looking forward to the future and is lots of fun to be with. When I asked her how she had kept everything together she replied, “the reality is that bad things sometimes happen in life. It's not as much what happens, but how we bounce back that is really important”.

This got me thinking. Why can the same thing happen to two people, and one sees it as a minor inconvenience whereas for the other it is a major catastrophe? Whether it's ending a relationship, losing a client or missing out on a promotion, we have all found ourselves in situations that drive us to feel frustrated and think life is unfair. Why is it that some people have a rubber backside? They bounce back, pull their socks up and keep moving forward. Others, though, seem to have a concrete backside. A single setback leads to a downward spiral towards depression, lower productivity and under-performance. The answer is resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience refers to the ability to bounce back from stressful situations. It is not a trait, but a learnt behaviour that is key for high performance. In a landmark study by Maddi & Kobasa with Illinois Bell Telephone Company that ran from 1975 to 1987, researchers assessed the individual difference variables of 450 employees in relation to stress.

Over the six-year period, the researchers analysed the employees' performance, leadership and health. The results showed that while two-thirds of employees suffered with a decrease in performance, leadership and health due to extreme stress (including heart attacks, strokes, obesity, mental health issues and poor performance reviews), one-third of employees thrived during the upheaval despite experiencing the same amount of disruption and stress. For the one-third of the employees that thrived, the results showed they maintained their health, happiness and performance, as well as gained a renewed sense of energy.

Resilience, or mental toughness is an umbrella term used to describe positive psychological characteristics that allow us to move forward despite setbacks. Sitting under the umbrella are terms like “hardiness” – which refers to the ability to find meaning and challenge in the demands of life; and “grit” – which refers to the ability to work towards challenges while maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, setbacks and plateaus in progress.

Added also to the list is “self-efficacy”, which refers to the power of believing we can. So why is it that some people are resilient and possess these traits, while others (and in the case of the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, two-thirds of the sample) are not?

According to psychologist Dr Martin Seligman we can view events two ways, optimistically or pessimistically. Those that view events and situations from an optimistic explanatory style see negative events as temporary and specific, whereas those with a pessimistic explanatory style see events as permanent and universal.

Here are five pointers about resilience:

1. Bad things happen

It is a reality of life that bad things (often outside of our control) will happen to each and every one of us. It is because of this we need to be resilient and develop the ability to bounce back from stressful situations.

2. Resilience is not about extreme fitness

While it can help to give you a buffer, resilience is not about being physically fit or mentally hard. Nor is it about being ruthless or suppressing emotions. Resilience is not a trait, it is something we learn and continue to develop over time through experience.

3. Resilience is a two-step process

Step one is about recognising when we are exposed to stressful situations. Step two is being able to use our internal resources to react positively to the stressful situations that are thrust upon us. This means that rather than thinking “there's nothing I can do”, resilient people think “what alternatives are available to me?”.

4. Developing your default

For many people, their default position is not a resilient one. They find themselves trapped in the slavery of their conditions and feel overwhelmed with what is happening and can't see the wood for the trees. Resilient people build the resources to stand still in these circumstances. They choose to refocus and rethink and ask “what is within my control right now?”.

5. Try an optimistic lens

It's hard to keep picking yourself up when it feels like you take one step forward and three steps back. One ingredient of resilience is hardiness. Hardiness is the ability to find meaning and challenge in the demands of life. Next time you're knocked down, try viewing your situation through an optimistic lens. In discovering how you can find opportunity from misfortune, you'll not only increase your luck, but also build your resilience.

What tips have you followed to build a rubber backside and stay resilient?