I was lucky enough to hear Hugh van Cuylenburg speak yesterday about resilience. Resilience is the power to recover from trauma. Hugh describes it as the ability to bounce back, but also to bounce forward. To take the setbacks of today and make them the building blocks of tomorrow. To build everything that happens in your life into a new, stronger you.
We’ve all known people who bounce like a superball regardless of the trauma life throws at them. And we’ve probably all had times in our lives when it feels as though the next straw to land on our overburdened backs will crush us irretrievably. At moments like that, resilience seems like something elusive that only other people can have. Hugh’s message is simple and potent: Resilience can be taught. It can be practiced, and strengthened, like a muscle. And it is astonishingly simple to do.
At the risk of oversimplifying several hours of compellingly personal and highly entertaining stories, backed by solid research data, it boils down to three things:
- and empathy
Most of us live our lives like a kind of electron cloud around the nucleus of the present. We are a blur of thoughts about what happened yesterday, what might happen tomorrow, and all of the things we need to do. We are having arguments in our heads with people based on what we think they might say, and building mental bastions against situations that might never arise. We are everywhere, all at once. Preparing for everything to come, rehashing everything that’s been, and adding in a whole lot of hypothetical stuff that never was and never will be. It’s exhausting.
What is she thinking?
Why didn’t he return my email?
What does he think of me?
How am I going to get through this week?
What if she won’t talk to me tomorrow?
Why did I do that?
Unlike electrons, however, we have the power to come to rest on the nucleus of our present. We can decide to focus in on this present moment. On the world around us. On how we feel. On what someone is telling us. On what is going on right now. Research shows that this ability to be mentally present has all kinds of clear, tangible, physiological as well as psychological benefits.
But like deciding to play the piano, it’s not necessarily something we can simply sit down and do, right off the bat. We need to know the right techniques, and we need to practice them. We need to get into the habit of being fully present, rather than defaulting to being that buzzing, fizzing electron cloud, and only ever noticing the present once it becomes past. The good news is that as little as 5 minutes mindfulness practice a day can help you to live in the moment.
I’ve written about mindfulness before. It was Gratitude and Empathy that really struck a chord with me yesterday. New research shows that writing down 3 good things each day – 3 things that went well, that you are grateful for – together with their causes, can make you happier, relieve depression, and effectively inoculate you against future trauma. It doesn’t mean you will never be traumatised, of course, but it helps you be that superball and bounce back and then forwards, rather than dipping down into depression.
Hugh described it in a way that made a lot of sense to me. It’s as though we all have a level of depression and anxiety. Traumatic life events drop our happiness levels down, and can drop us low enough to tip us into depression. If our depression level is high, it takes less trauma to reach that level. But if our depression level is low, higher levels of trauma will still avoid tipping us into depression. Simply being consciously grateful for 3 things each day can significantly lower that base depression level.
The final point, empathy, is in some ways related to mindfulness. If you are in the moment, aware of your surroundings, you will also be aware of the people around you. It’s only a short step from there to choosing to help them. Actively helping others has been shown time and time again to increase our own happiness. From random acts of kindness to helping out when someone is in a fix, empathy is also a way of building communities, and a sense of connectedness for both helper and helpee. Even a small thing like pausing to give someone directions can materially add to your own well being. There’s just no downside.
I found the research pretty compelling, but I also know that this stuff works on a deep and personal level. I have watched mindfulness and the Thankful Thing change my family’s lives. Sure, some days we forget to do the thankful thing. Sometimes we don’t manage to sit down and make space in our lives for mindfulness. But even though we don’t do it every day, it has transformed us. It has given us coping strategies we never thought were possible before. And even though we know how much it helps, sometimes we need to be prompted to get back to it.