Month 7: How to bounce back

Join our growing tribe of readers who are choosing to spread joy by creating Happiness Clubs around the world, with guidance from Psychologies and Action for Happiness. This month, Suzy Greaves, Psychologies’ editor, is focusing on bouncing back from adversity

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Month 7 in Happiness Club, we’re looking at how we can become more resilient: our ability to cope with and bounce back from adversity. ‘All of us have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma in our lives. But how we respond to these has a big impact on our wellbeing,’ says Vanessa King, positive psychology expert for Action for Happiness. ‘We often can’t choose what happens to us, but in principle we can choose our own attitude to what happens. In practice it’s not always easy, but one of the most exciting findings from recent research is that resilience, like many other life skills, can be learned.’

We’re all likely to experience ups and downs, so building resilience is valuable, says King. As we can’t always predict or control what life throws at us, we can build a range of skills and nurture our resources to help us respond flexibly, effectively deal with challenges, recover more quickly, and even learn and grow as a result. Research shows that learning tools to make you feel resilient can even lower your risk of depression and anxiety. ‘What's more, the same skills can help us manage fear of taking on new opportunities and so help us develop in other ways, too,’ says King.

Research shows that our resilience is influenced by three factors: what we learned as we grew up, our relationships with others, and/or having a religious faith. Plus the internal mechanisms of how we choose to interpret events that we can’t control.

There is a saying that most of us have heard: ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ and science has shown that there’s some truth in it. ‘Experiencing some adversity during our lives does increase our resilience by enabling us to learn ways of coping and identify and engage our support network. It also gives us a sense of mastery over past adversities, which helps us to feel we will be able to cope in the future. We’ve probably all experienced things as stressful initially (for example a new task at school or at work), but later find we’re no longer phased by similar activities. Importantly though, for us to learn through such struggles, our coping skills and resources can be taxed but not overwhelmed,’ says King.

Our ability to cope with adversity can be influenced by how we’re able to interpret the situation we’re in or what has happened to us. Finding a way to put it in perspective, such as thinking of those in worse situations and/or finding a way to make sense of it, can be helpful. A related but separate process – finding some benefit that has come as a result of the difficulty – can also be constructive. ‘This isn’t about denial of what happened, nor putting an unrealistically positive spin on things, but, where possible, trying to find some good from negative events can be a healthy coping strategy,’ says King.

But it’s not about unrealistic optimism. You don’t have to deny that anything bad has happened, or might happen. This is just as unhealthy a strategy as always expecting the worst. It’s about learning how to be a realistic optimist. ‘Realistic optimists are those who engage with their problems as challenges, which can include planning for worst-case scenarios. They actively appreciate the positive aspects of the situation without denying the negative. They don’t delude themselves into thinking they’re invincible or that there is no problem (as an unrealistic optimist might) and they don’t resign themselves to their fate in thinking that nothing can be done (as a pessimist would). They aspire to or hope for positive outcomes and actively work towards them,’ says King.

So here’s hoping for a positive outcome this month and one we can actively work towards – together in our Happiness Clubs around the world. Good luck everyone.

Questions to discuss at your Happiness Club

1 When have you bounced back from adversity in the past and what did you learn about yourself?

2 Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? How does that stance serve or hinder you?

3 How has facing your own adversity made you more compassionate to others?

4 ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Discuss.

Suzy Walker

Editor of Psychologies, Psychologies

I am proud to be editor of Psychologies, a magazine that champions, challenges and coaches us to think differently so we can solve our own problems and create a life that nourishes us. Author of Making The Big Leap and The Big Peace, Suzy believes that the secret to happiness is living life to the full right here, right now, committing to a few goals now and again and taking Oscar, the Psychologies dog for a walk round the field when it all gets a bit too much.