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The Nuance

It’s Okay If You’re Not Resilient

Blaming young people’s feelings of defeat on a lack of grit is ‘simplistic and counterproductive,’ experts say

Illustration: Kieran Blakey

“R“Resilience” has become a buzzword. A quick Google Scholar search brings up hundreds of recent research papers on resilience and its role in mental health. And the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified building resilience as a “key pillar” of its Health 2020 policy framework for improving health and well-being.

While definitions vary a bit from one source to the next, resilience is usually defined as the ability to cope and persist in the face of adversity. It’s often used interchangeably with the word “grit,” and it falls into the category of noncognitive skills that includes things like motivation and attitude.

“Resilience, the short version of it, is the ability to make lemonade out of lemons,” says Bruce McEwen, a professor at the Rockefeller University in New York who studies the neuroscience of stress and resilience. “It’s learning to deal with problems so that you’re not besieged and made helpless by them.”

A lot of research has concluded that resilience is a measurable skill, and people who possess high levels of it are more likely to succeed academically and professionally. There’s also evidence that resilient individuals are shielded from suicidal thoughts following negative life events and are resistant to the self-doubt, anxiety, and depression that hardship engenders.

These findings have fed into the idea — one popularized in bestselling books and self-help guides — that resilience is akin to a superpower that shields its bearer from strife and despair, and that it correlates with success in all facets of life. Best of all, resilience is a trainable, augmentable skill that anyone can acquire with practice, or so the thinking follows.

People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure.

But some experts argue that the whole concept of resilience is ill-defined, and the amount of resilience a person displays is dependent on context and other variables that are largely out of that individual’s control. The resilience fad also dovetails with — and, in some ways, reinforces — the idea that people today lack the hardiness of their forebears, and that this is somehow their fault.

“This story has emerged that if you fail or are struggling, it’s because you lack this characteristic that other people possess,” says Mark Seidenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Not only is this an unhelpful form of “victim blaming,” but it also confuses effect for cause, he says. People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure. “Success is very motivating, and failure is discouraging,” Seidenberg explains. “People talk about millennials lacking tenacity or resilience, or they say that the Greatest Generation had a lot more grit. No, people in both groups responded to conditions that were more or less favorable.”

Faced with mountains of college debt, an unfulfilling gig-trending job market, and broad sociocultural shifts that may promote isolation and feelings of inadequacy, it’s not surprising that a lot of people today feel discouraged or depressed. Blaming these outcomes on a person’s lack of resilience “is simplistic and counterproductive,” Seidenberg says.

Others agree that each person’s capacity to demonstrate resilience is based in part on the circumstances and other factors that are uncontrollable. “Individuals differ in their genetic makeup and early life experiences, which powerfully influence brain development and therefore shape emotional resilience in adulthood,” says Golnaz Tabibnia, a neuroscientist and resilience researcher in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. “However, this does not mean that we are helpless or completely at the mercy of external life events.”

Tabibnia says the way a person is raised and educated can carve “deep pathways” in the brain that promote or discourage resilience in the face of adversity. “But our experiences as adults can either reinforce these pathways or help pave new pathways,” she explains. “Instead of viewing resilience-building efforts as a new form of ‘victim blaming,’ I would think of them as ‘victim empowering.’”

Rockefeller’s McEwen describes resilience as a feature of a healthy brain — one that can weather a measure of stress or adversity without coming undone. “So, how do you instill resilience in someone who has a problem? That’s the challenge of mental health,” he says. “All the behavioral therapies we use are really designed to instill some form of resilience.”

While pointing to a lack of resilience as the cause of a person’s problems is both unhelpful and unfair, teaching a person how to be more resilient in certain contexts is beneficial and, according to some research, achievable. “I think both sides of this debate have a point,” Tabibnia says. “Just as we shouldn’t oversell the potential of behavioral and psychosocial strategies for boosting resilience, lest it should lead to further feelings of disappointment and failure, nor should we take a completely passive and helpless approach.”

She says the research so far points to three broad categories of intervention that seem to bolster resilience. The first involves downregulating negative thought patterns through approaches like exposure therapy and cognitive reappraisal. (Basically, these teach your brain to think about sources of stress in new and less-troubling ways.) The second category involves taking steps to improve optimism and social connectedness, both of which encourage positive feelings. And the third involves mindfulness, religious engagement, and other practices that help people “transcend the self,” Tabibnia says.

These resilience-boosting techniques are not a panacea for all ailments, she adds, but they provide “an evidence-based set of tools that can help people help themselves.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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