Resilience is not D.I.Y.
Updated: Jun 27, 2019
Resilience is not only a DIY Endeavour.
Professor Michael Ungar is a Canadian social worker who has been a family therapist for 20 years. He also leads a large team of researchers that study child, family, and community resilience. He is the author of the book: “Change your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success.” His research, involving large studies in many countries, has convinced him that resilience is not primarily intrinsic. That is, how well you cope with life is not just about what you do and think. My blogs this year have focused a lot on self-improvement so I thought this research would be an interesting counterpoint. Ungar and his merry band of researchers maintain that striving to better ourselves will not improve our lot in life if our family, workplace, community, health-care professionals and governments fail to provide sufficient care and support. In fact, according to him, all the internal resources we can muster, are not of much use without a nurturing environment. Ungar goes so far as to make the controversial statement that if our environment is not nurturing we are better off trying to change it than change ourselves. His research shows that we need external resources to weather the inevitable crises of life. Ordinary things like adequate finances, family and social support and sick days. Good health, social welfare, SES, and police services. I would add things like clean water and air and healthy green spaces where we can relax and recharge.
Well-being teachers advocate a whole host of strategies for living life more healthily and successfully. It would probably take several lifetimes to try everything suggested. There are hordes of gurus telling us what to do. And much of it can be good and quite productive. It’s great to see ourselves grow. But if we try stuff and it doesn’t work, or our world comes crashing down around our ears, somehow in the self-help universe it seems to be our fault. We haven’t tried hard enough, long enough, been positive enough, or done quite the right thing. Soon we can get the feeling that we, ourselves, are just not enough. Stuck on a kind of performance treadmill constantly ticking boxes.
I think Ungar has a point. Sometimes life can dump crap on us so hard and fast that no amount of self-fix techniques alone are going to help us shovel our way out. On the flip-side, when life is good the temptation is to become arrogant, to think we are the sole cause of our good fortune - we did this or that to attract it - Donald Trump being a prominent public example. He considers himself a self-made man but was actually born into a wealthy family with lots of connections. There is a real allure to this kind of thinking I’ve discovered. I find it tends to reduce compassion for those that suffer and conveniently abdicates me of any responsibility to assist. In fact I can go one cruel step further and victim blame. We see this in the treatment of asylum seekers who sometimes get vilified as criminals and economic opportunists. Some probably are which is why we have immigration officials. Others are genuinely fleeing war and persecution.
A positive attitude and certain behaviors help us heal and cope with the continual stress of adjusting to life’s demands, but when life throws us a curve ball, Ungar’s research suggests that the biggest predictor of adjustment has nothing to do with internal resources. Recovery after crisis depends on mundane things like how quickly insurance adjusters settle your claim after a natural disaster. Healthy communities, according to his research, do not depend on the internal messages people tell themselves, or even on the number of yoga and meditation teachers! They are largely a consequence of good governance, progressive taxation, housing and social welfare policies. And you don’t get good governance without an engaged, informed and involved voting public. Friends and colleagues also have an enormous effect on our capacity to thrive. Improve the functioning of the government, family, peer group, or work team Ungar argues and we are more likely to show resilience even if our world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Ungar comments that this principle is just as applicable in the workplace where no amount of personal development will help us succeed if our employer is unsupportive. Mountains of memos and paperwork, unrealistic deadlines, understaffed projects, job insecurity, poorly maintained facilities and incompetent managers are all examples he gives of external workplace stressors that will ensure we fail and burn out regardless of our individual beliefs and behaviors.
A positive attitude helps us take advantage of opportunities but self help techniques alone will not help us survive a bad workplace, traumatic experience, or childhood abuse. “Let’s re-frame your negative thoughts” is the modern iteration of the old-fashioned “let’s look on the bright side” that you can now pay some therapists upwards of $95/hour to be told. Such sentiments are not without merit but they just don’t cut the mustard when we are facing an intensely difficult experience. And whilst a certain amount of introspection is useful I think we can get too bogged down in self blame. I have learned to work on myself - with healthy diet, regular exercise, goal and reward setting, regular time in nature, positive thinking and mindfulness/meditation yada yada. But increasingly, like Ungar’s research has demonstrated, as I’ve grown older I’ve realized how important external supports are. Finding relationships that nurture, opportunities to use my talents, and places where I experience community and support. And when my life is charming, I try to resist the urge to look down my nose at others who suffer. My success does not prove I am a more evolved human being - I am just as likely to be a complete narcissist who spends her privileged life feathering her nest selling snake oil to the vulnerable.
I have done a fair amount of “work” on myself in the last decade primarily because I had to but I am so thankful for all the external factors that supported me. My husband, kids, and a couple of good friends encouraged me but also helped me in very practical ways. Access to specialist medical care, great physiotherapists and other bodyworkers were important. A wonderful local gym with floor to ceiling views of the water! (I am not by nature a gym junkie). At one point I was spending hours a day in that place and it really helped that the staff were welcoming, friendly, and capable and that it was an attractive space in which to work out. Access to invigorating wild places within an hours drive from home was and still is important to me. Organic markets. Cuban Salsa. Seemingly endless online resources. I was also fortunate to have the finances to weather a lengthy period of unemployment and be able to re-skill. Could I be where I am today without having tapped into these external resources? - I don’t think so.
I guess the take home message for me having read Ungar’s book is that environment matters. I am realizing more and more that social, political, and natural environments are just as important to my health and physical well-being as organizing my inner world is. I would miss out on a lot that is of value if I focused on motivation and self transformation alone. Ungar’s work has nudged me to keep on building mutually nurturing relationships and community. We get out of our community and environment what we put into it. Isolation and loneliness are at epidemic proportions in the western world. Our focus on consumption and acquisition as a measure of life satisfaction seems to be strangling us. It shackles us to debt, busyness and exhaustion. Most of us are chronically time poor and so we become bystanders to what’s going on in our wider world. And yet if Ungar and his research is accurate, this wider world is vitally important to our survival and sense of well being. One thing my husband and I talk a lot about is how we can live more simply to free up more time to do what is meaningful and to lighten our carbon footprint. This is something I will be exploring in future blogs.
We can’t just suck the life force out of everything and everybody because our environment is becoming increasingly fragile and everybody struggles with something. Now when I see that there is something in my community and environment that needs to be improved and I have the time, skill, energy and mental space I get involved. I have been quite taken with this quote by George Bernard Shaw, a famous playwright:
“True joy is being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as mighty
Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments
And grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making
I don’t know which is more important - internal factors or external - but it makes a lot of sense to me to work on both. Ungar’s research encourages me to interact more with the world and to change my environment for the better. We are all interconnected parts of the web of life. It makes complete sense to me that my well-being depends not only on the health of those around me, but also on the health of the planet.