This article was originally published in the magazine TEDxRyersonU: Lenses in March 2017.
When I was a little girl I used to wish upon a star; you know: “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight—I wish everyone was healthy and happy.“ To my child’s mind it seemed to cover everything. It was the wish that encompassed all other wishes (as I had been taught through the fairy tales I loved). It was my way of making a difference in the world, the best way I knew how. I have since learned the Lovingkindness Meditation (out of the Mindfulness Meditation tradition) that covers much of the same ground—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fast-forward to adulthood, I studied to become a clinical psychologist and began working at Ryerson’s counselling centre. My job, in some sense, was to help “everyone become healthy and happy”. After 25 years of working as a counsellor, manager, intern supervisor, and instructor, I started to wonder if there was a more direct way to reach the same goal.
Positive psychology (a relatively new discipline) tells us that there are 6 dimensions of well-being and flourishing: positivity, engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement, and vitality. Throughout all six dimensions you will find talk of resilience, an integral aspect of flourishing. I became really interested in how to teach resilience as prevention—and reduce the need for intervention after the fact. My goal became to teach resilience so that people could bounce back (thriving) before they got stuck in distress in the first place.
I thought about what my years as a psychologist taught me, about the difference between surviving and thriving; and built this profile of someone who is struggling to thrive:
- She tends to ruminate about the past and worry about the future;
- She seems to be unaware of the good things that are happening in her life;
- She explains why things happen to her from a pessimistic perspective;
- She is judgmental and self-critical;
- She often gives up when feeling overwhelmed.
If resilience is best defined as the capacity to bounce back after things go wrong, then what do people need to learn in order to thrive?
After considerable research into the field of Positive Psychology, I created a 5 Factor Model of Resilience. Think of it as a puzzle with mindfulness in the centre, and going clockwise: gratitude, optimism, self-compassion, and grit. Each component of this puzzle connects and augments the others, particularly in times of crisis.
I think of the absence of mindfulness as a form of time travel—either ruminating about the past and/or worrying about the future. Mindfulness is about being simply present at this very moment. It allows us to take stock and gather resources. Being mindful keeps us grounded in the actual situation and realistically focused on solutions and actions that will make a difference.
Gratitude is not simply saying thank you when someone does you a favor. Gratitude in this context is about noticing good things that are happening all around you, and taking it in; savoring good experiences, the kindness and generosity of others, and opportunities that have opened up and the possibilities that you could explore. It’s about the relationships between you and others and the expression of your gratitude to these important people in your life that seems to make life worth living. Gratitude also allows you to feel connected and hopeful about these possibilities.
The ways in which we explain why good things happen to us and why bad things happen to us has a significant impact on our ability to bounce back. Changing these explanations is something that can be learned. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that optimists explain good times to themselves as something that they caused directly or had a significant role in instigating; they perceive it as permanent; and it spills over into other aspects of their lives. Optimists end up feeling the glow of achievement and have hope in the future. Similarly, when something bad happens, optimists explain it to themselves as bad luck, temporary, and very situation specific. As optimists, we have more energy to be resilient and take action to resolve challenging situations because we haven’t spent our energy feeling scared, filled with self-recrimination, and hopelessness the way that pessimists tend to do.
When things go wrong we tend to blame ourselves for everything, being highly self-critical and impatient with our ever- so-human flaws. Kristen Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, asks: what if, instead of being so self-critical, we were able to be our own best friend? Kind, supportive, patient, loving—in the moment that we need it most? Cultivating this attitude of being your own best friend is integral to resilience.
Grit has been defined by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, as perseverance and passion for very long term goals, in a wide range of contexts. I believe that cultivating grit in reference to overcoming setbacks, losses, and hurdles in our personal lives is equally essential to persevering in service of achievement. Grit is essential to my 5 Factor Model of Resilience because it is based on a choice we can make to stick to our goals despite the obstacles we face, and because we already have these attitudes and skills of resilience within ourselves; even when we don’t think we do.
Personal Model of Resilience
I believe that we can tap the strategies, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that fuel our grit in one context in which we are successful, and import these to a different area of our lives where we are struggling. This is the essence of resilience. Christine Padesky, a psychologist and author of Mind Over Mood, suggests that when we do something we love on a regular basis, we keep going, no matter what; obstacles are seen as temporary and surmountable. Our faith in these successful strategies and attitudes is justified because they are familiar and trustworthy in one context—all we need to do is transpose these to another situation and discover how they work there. By bringing our behaviors from a successful context to an area where we are struggling, we are able to deal with the completely new challenge and succeed.Recognising these strategies, behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs becomes our personal model of resilience.
So there we have it: being fully present and mindful; noticing the good things in life and all the possibilities before you; giving yourself credit for the good things that happen, with hope and zest for the future; forgiving yourself for things that have gone wrong; and tapping your already proven strengths to use them in service of the challenge before you. A five factor model of resilience; grounded in best practices research within the field of positive psychology and flourishing, and 25 years-experience working with university students who want to thrive and be their best selves.
Join Diana in the coming weeks as she delves into each of the Five Factors (mindfulness, gratitude, optimism, self-compassion, and grit), offering deeper understanding of each and how they play a role in ourselves and her 5 Factor Model of Resilience.