Research shows that happiness is a choice, but did you know that resilience—the ability to bounce back, even from trauma—is something that can be learned?
At the root of resilience is positive emotion, optimism, and the ability to adapt to change. It’s what fuels us to rebound from adversity, ward off stress, and fight depression. Psychologists have identified a few additional traits that characterize resilience, including the ability to regulate emotion and to see failure as a potential learning opportunity rather than a dead end.
Seeing the silver lining in any situation is crucial for happiness, according to Kripalu faculty member Maria Sirois, PsyD.
“Some of us grew up in families and communities where we were taught to look for positivity. Some of us do have to look harder,” Maria says. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is what you choose to do with your life with the time and energy you have going forward.”
If you want to learn to be more resilient, Maria suggests these four key practices:
Focus on the positive: Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that resilient people experience just as many negative emotions as the rest of us, but don’t get bogged down in negative thinking. Her research found that maintaining a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions builds resilience. We can improve our ratio by learning to pay more attention to positive events. Instead of focusing on the one thing that went wrong today, try appreciating all the things that went right.
Know your strengths: Maria says one reason resilient people are able to remain optimistic during hard times is because they are confident in their ability to problem solve. One way to do that is to lead with your strengths. Are you persistent? Then use that quality to find a new job or move on from a failed relationship.
Try benefit finding: For the most part people fall into two categories: the fault finder or the benefit finder. The fault finder will ask, “What’s wrong?” or “Who’s to blame?” while the benefit finder wonders “What are my choices?” and “As difficult as this is, what am I learning here?” Nelson Mandela, a paragon of resilience, told Oprah that his 27 years in prison gave him unlimited time to think, read, and prepare for South Africa’s post-apartheid future.
Practice gratitude: Time spent thinking about what you’re grateful for boosts happiness and affects the neurochemistry in the brain, Maria says. It also reminds us of all those positive things that we take for granted: loving friends, the kindness of strangers, or a warm home on a cold winter day. Ask yourself, “What is wonderful for me?” And, if it doesn’t feel wonderful, ask, “How am I growing?” Look for the benefit.
“This is not like the Disney [version] of happiness,” Maria explains. “It requires us to have a grounded sense of reality. We can feel ‘I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,’ and also [realize] that there are things about this very circumstance that will strengthen me.”