Chronic Resilience and Learned Optimism
My sister manages a student property center near one of the best universities in the country. It is known that more students from that school will withdraw due to psychological breakdowns and will have more suicide attempts than any other area college. She has already had several incidents this year at her property alone that ended with students being checked into the hospital for said reasons. They are all the most elite academics, but now, they are in competition with one another. Once the valedictorian of his high school is currently struggling to pass his college courses. So why are even the best and brightest failing to cope with the pressures of life?
I’ve been reading the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. There was an entire revolution in psychological treatment called “Positive Psychology” which began after he wrote this breakthrough book in 1990. Before that, psychological practices were geared toward treating mental illness. Seligman asks the question, why aren’t people fulfilled and thriving when we know more about human behavior than ever before? Now, psychologists and counselors help people to become more than just not-sick, but actually thrive.
In his book, Learned Optimism, he theorizes why there is more depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug addiction than ever before when we live in a happiness-driven society. He believes it is much, much more than public awareness of mental health driving diagnoses. Children were once taught how to overcome obstacles and persevere, but teaching practices have shifted to the current focus of boosting self-confidence regardless of efforts. He proposes that individuals of prior generations were raised to believe they were surrounded by various types of support, and that sense of community has been lost today. In the past, people realized that their support system shared responsibility for every success, failure, and overall person they became. Because there was an awareness that outside forces contributed to their lives, when their hard work paid off, they were sharing their triumphs; when they failed, they wouldn’t fall too far or stay down too long as they had a safety net.
In the past, Americans valued country, faith in government and patriotism. People were raised connected to a personal faith in God, organized religion provided a community, connection with family was the cornerstone of society, and people were inclined to make close connections inside of their local communities. Just the sheer idea that others believe in you can be the difference between a devastating pitfall that derails your life and a curve ball which you can bounce back from. Today, we don’t grow up ingrained with the same surrounding support system, lasting connections, or faith in God and country.
Society teaches that your successes are your own to take pride in and celebrate. You are paving your own way in this world. There is a great focus on self-determination, but the tools for coping with inevitable life failures are incredibly lacking. We are taught that personal responsibility and success is everything, but when we fail (as we all do), the personal fallout can be devastating.
I was already planning to write this piece on Learned Optimism when I happened to read an article on Resilience and was surprised to find that the number one quality suggested in becoming more resilient is to create the same types of support that past generations grew up with (as in Learned Optimism). Surrounding yourself with close connections, friends, family members, becoming more connected to faith, plugging into community, and making permanent, lasting relationships with “people who affirm you, recognize your strengths, natural, innate abilities, and provide the support and acceptance you need” will increase your resilience [Mary J. Yerkes].
Other ways to become more resilient: accept good enough, focus on what you can control, find meaning in life, accept advice from your loved ones, take care of yourself, ask for/accept help, don’t be surprised when life changes suddenly, expect things to eventually get better, set goals you can achieve, laugh. Being resilient isn’t about silencing yourself through turmoil or ignoring your emotions, but resiliency is a method of utilizing multiple positive coping strategies along with a mindset that is postured to “roll with the punches.”
The author of Learned Optimism says, “If we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that failure is our fault, it will undermine everything we do.” Pessimists feel personally responsible in all success and failure, and helpless to make changes. This thinking leads to tendencies for depression, anxiety, and chronic pessimists are more likely to have health troubles later in life. Does this mean that society’s focus on self-reliance and self-esteem is creating generations of pessimists? The good news is, both resilience and optimism can be learned!
Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.
Chronic Resilience: An Interview with Danea Horn by Toni Bernhard
10 Tips for Building Resilience in the Face of Chronic Illness by Mary J. Yerkes
Do Higher Levels of Resilience Buffer the Deleterious Impact of Chronic Illness on Disability in Later Life?