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Defining Resilience: Nature or Nurture?

Was she born with with it? Or do our experiences dictate our personal resilience?

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We all know them, and history is littered with them. People, be they friends, family or colleagues, who seem so able to rise above whatever life may throw at them. Not only do they seem to take adversity in their stride, but when they are set back, they have an ability to quickly ‘bounce back’ – and may even grow from the event. Perhaps they are just lucky? Or is it a skill? How come they seem so resilient? 

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.”

There are large amounts of empirical evidence that shows that a person with a relative who suffers from depression is almost five times as likely to develop depression themselves.  But the basis for this is unclear. It could be heredity and/or due to environmental factors. It is possible, for example, that children (who model behavior) are more likely to be depressed in adulthood if they have seen a depressed parent for example, or lived in the same conditions that caused the onset of the depression. Correlation is not causation. 

Genetic analysis is beginning to show that population groups with certain gene expressions are more likely to experience stronger and more enduring negative emotions as a result of a triggering event, say the loss of a job or a loved one. This triggering event is the important factor – it reveals what peoples’ natural response might be, which would otherwise remain unknown. 

George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, is pioneering research in the field of bereavement and trauma. Bonanno studied large populations following traumatic events – such as after disease outbreaks and the September 11th World Centre attacks.  Bonanno’s research revealed that – almost without exception and regardless of the degree of trauma – that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was never prevalent in more than one-third of the affected group, showing by deduction there was a greater resilience in the other two thirds. Why might this be?

Zolli and Healy in their book “Resilience: why things bounce back” propose the reason for this is that we have likely evolved this way to ensure that in the aftermath of a traumatic event there remains a sizable portion of the population to take care of those deeply affected by trauma.   We all can’t just fall apart.

This theory basically underscores what most have largely suspected ( especially the more emotive of us ) – that there are some of whom by birthright that are simply better at handling and recovering from major setbacks. They have a naturally more resilient starting point.  This, of course, does not mean that these resilient people are not experiencing trauma, sadness or other natural emotions, but simply that they show more capacity to continue to function and adapt in the face of it, as per our definition. 

Levels of personal resilience are predicated on many variables. Positive Psychology shows us that there are ego traits that directly correlate with resilience – such as optimism and confidence, which in turn can be influenced by factors outside of genetics  – such as our personal life journeys, belief, and social networks. As Dr Steve Southwick says in his bookResilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest challenges – “While no one gene or gene variation explains resilience, genetic factors do play an important role in determining how an individual responds to stress and trauma” (and so in the meantime we should ) “develop behavioral, social and pharmacological interventions and training programs to enhance resilience”

So, given that we can‘t choose our parents ( or change the past ), there is no point in resigning oneself to self-defeating beliefs such as “I was just born this way’, because environmental factors still determine the majority of our personal resilience. This means we can change them.

So where should we begin? I believe that the best starting point would be to develop / or choose to have a growth mindset.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

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