Personal resilience, ecology and faith

Enjoying a perfect Spring day like today seems impossible to some.  They have too many worries to just enjoy the day. We are all going to face adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats.  Some of us will adapt and transform ourselves to cope with the difficulty.  Some of us will succumb and grow unhealthy. This resilience and lack of resilience is being studied intensively by psychologists. Understanding will progress even further if psychologists will embrace the ecological foundation of resilience.  Then, since personal resilience is the foundation of family and community resilience, we’ll all benefit.


Here’s what psychology research has found: good health is the quality which stands out most in resilient people.  But that is just an effect not a cause. Resilient people are healthier because they adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.  What makes a person resilient? The research is fascinating. People who are resilient are cheerful, assertive, persistent, resourceful, and know they can cause change.  One research team identified eight factors which you can improve to increase your resilience.

  1. Optimism: focus on your strengths
  2. Can do attitude: focus on action
  3. Emotional awareness: become a good communicator
  4. Self-control: control response to circumstances
  5. Social support: increase network of friends and family
  6. Sense of humor: laugh at life’s frustrations
  7. Self-belief: increase confidence and self-esteem
  8. Ability to solve problems: become more adaptable and flexible.

Another set of researchers have noticed the importance of a sense of meaningfulness, faith and personal goals.  Unfortunately, some psychologists do their best to eliminate faith and religion from their work.

Including the clear effects of faith on resilience has enabled one research effort to summarize individual resilience as due to four components:

  1. Confidence: Having feelings of competence, effectiveness in coping with stressful situations and strong self-esteem.
  2. Social Support: Building good relationships with others and seeking support, rather that trying to cope solely on your own.
  3. Adaptability: flexibility and adapting to changing situation which are beyond your control. Cope well with change and recover quickly from its impact.
  4. Purposefulness: Having a clear sense of purpose, clear values, drive and direction.

At the family level, a stable home environment and supportive relationships are linked to resilience.  When these are not present, supportive relationships outside the family (e.g., those with teachers, counselors, coaches, and neighbors) are associated with resilience. Community characteristics that influence resilience capacity development in individuals include early intervention programs, safe neighborhoods, access to recreational facilities and health services, and religious and spiritual organizations.

What is most fascinating is that some people are resilient even when they have little support from family or community.  How do they do it? Such responses are called emergent phenomena. They are novel events which appear from subsystems where they don’t exist.

Emergent phenomena are present throughout biology and physics. For example, water is an emergent phenomena, not predictable from the hydrogen and oxygen from which it is organized.

Emergence is called self-organization in the ecology literature. To understand self-organization, first you have to get rid of a simple, linear cause-effect view of the world. The effect of one particular stressor cannot be predicted. People respond radically differently to the same stressor. So there is no way you can just sum up the various stressors and determine how much stress will overcome an individual’s resilience.

Adaptability, connectivity and self-organization. You are a lot like all living systems.  Your health and resilience depend on your adaptability, connectivity and ability to self-organize. Complex systems theory is a useful framework for conceptualizing resilience because it embodies the basic tenets of adaptability (e.g., responding to environmental shocks or stress); connectivity across a range of scales (i.e., between individuals within communities and from one community to another) and self-organization. This model challenges the normative thinking that every observed effect has an observable cause and that the whole can be understood by studying just its parts.

Self-organization is the phenomenon which both underlies resilience and makes it easier to understand.   Self-organization exists in both living and non-living systems and at all scales.  Self-organization means working through the stressors disrupting your life.  Don’t keep them at a distance.  Embrace them so you can understand them and let your body, mind and spirit transform you.

To do so, you have to have confidence that you can do it.  Where does that come from?  From faith.  You realize that all of nature responds to your positive, optimistic certainty that you will overcome adversity. Your faith is propagated throughout your world, transforms it and makes you, your family and your community more resilient.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifeSee how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how Nature clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will it not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, but seek first faith and truth and all you need will be given to you.
For more on psychological resilience, see:

One thought on “Personal resilience, ecology and faith

  1. Pingback: Thunderstorms reveal resilience | Resilience

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