Resilience is the ability to react appropriately in an uncertain and changing environment. In an earlier issue, we ran an article about resilience at the organisational and societal level; now, we focus on the last domain of resilience, the individual level, which can be described as the ability to adapt, rise from adversity, and join others to create positive change.
This article is based on the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies’ report Individual Resilience – Survival Guide for the 21st Century (2016), and below, we particularly focus on the resilient mindset that helps contemporary individuals to handle the challenges in their professional and private lives.
We also examine the competencies that 21st century individuals need to not just survive, but also thrive in a world that is more characterised by technology, more automated, more globalised and more demanding on the individual than ever before, as old social structures dissolve and new ones arise.
How to become resilient
Scientist who study resilient individuals observe that they respond and adapt effectively to changing circumstances, recover rapidly from hardship or illness, and find innovative strategies for coping with stress.
Some people seem naturally more resilient than others, but it is important to realise that resilience is not genetically encoded – resilience can be learned. Just as you can train your body to perform better under hardship, you can also train your mind to not only endure hardship, but grow from it. The latest findings from neuroscientists’ studies on resilience show two things:
Firstly, the brain activity of resilient people differs from that of non-resilient people, and secondly, resilience can be learned. There is an inseparable connection between mind, body, and behaviour that we are able to influence.
We can basically divide resilient traits into four categories or focus areas for building resilience:
Resilient body: Being physically fit and of good health, to better handle physical stress and hardship
Resilient mind: Having a mindset that is prepared for change and able to cope with mental stress and hardship
Resilient behaviour: Cultivating social behaviour that helps us during crises and changes in a globalised and urbanised world
Resilient competencies: Learned skills and tools.
As with most things human, these areas are shaped partly by nature, partly by culture. Some people may be born with genetic advantages or raised with social advantages (like coming from a functional family with educated parents in a cultured environment), but any disadvantage can be made up for in part or in whole through a focused effort of improvement.
In the following, we will look at ways to improve or retain resilience in the four areas.
The resilient body
In the early 1990s, medical practitioners started to study rare cases of HIV-infected individuals who were resilient against AIDS. Rapidly, the biological concept of “being resilient against an aggressor” found its way into psychiatry, neurology, and psychology, where it got transformed into a bio-psychological concept and adjoined with a behaviour component in relation to post-traumatic stress disorders. The global medical research project The Resilience Project: A Search for Unexpected Heroes is screening the DNA of adults who have never been diagnosed with a severe disease. The project aims to systematically find those rare individuals who might have hidden protective factors that make them resilient against catastrophic illnesses.
In the future, it may be possible to use the knowledge from the Resilience Project to activate dormant genes for resilience or even introduce such genes through gene therapy, but until then, we are stuck with the good, old-fashioned ways of building a resilient body: exercising and eating right. Studies have found that people who are overweight, but not obese, tend to live longer than people of so-called ‘normal’ weight. One reason may be that heavier people have better survival chances during medical emergencies like infections or surgery and hence are more resilient to physical crises.
Exercise, however, seems to be a more important factor than weight. A major US study shows that exercising 2.5 hours a week at moderate intensity (e.g. brisk walking), or 1.25 hours at vigorous intensity (e.g. swimming), can extend life by 3.5 years, on average, while three times this effort can extend life by one additional year.
Getting enough sleep is essential for resilience. The tired mind and body are more likely to make mistakes and less able to handle physical and mental stress. Experts recommend getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, more if you are physically or mentally active.
The resilient mind
Like every muscle, the brain can be strengthened or weakened depending on how it is used. When cells in the brain are actively used, they transmit their messages efficiently and form connections with other cells, whereas non-stimulated brain cells die and are pruned. Depending on what tasks, thoughts, or emotions we focus on, different areas in the brain are stimulated and activated.
However, it can be harmful if the brain is overstimulated, e.g. by chronic stress, which makes people more inflexible. Resilient people have a good stress response that activates and deactivates in a timely fashion. A resilient mindset creates activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is related to fast planning, rational decision-making, strong self-control, and emotional control.
Resilient people are relatively resistant to dopamine depletion and function well in stressful conditions. They also have a more balanced production of stress hormones and typically also a balanced production of serotonin, which regulates mood, sleep, and appetite, and a higher production of oxytocin, which is connected to social behaviour and anxiety reduction.
The brain is plastic, and most people can train to become more resistant to stress. We can positively influence how our brain develops, how efficiently it works, and the skills it learns. The key is activity. It takes time and practice to build resilience. When we train a skill repeatedly, we build myelin; a fatty substance that surrounds neurones and speeds up the transmission of electrical impulses. This means better control of cognition and movement.
Stoicism and optimism
The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, introduced by the philosopher Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, seems ideally suited as a mental tool that can help to achieve individual resilience in the 21st century.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. When met with an adverse situation, you should face it with (stoic) calm and endurance rather than letting negative emotions eat you up or prevent you from acting rationally.One element in Stoicism is to improve your ethical and moral well-being, including being free from anger, envy, and jealousy and accepting all people as equal, regardless of their station or origin. This inner well-being will help you survive times when your material or physical well-being is threatened.
Stoics attain knowledge through rational thinking. You should become a clear and unbiased thinker, and any conviction should be verified by expertise or analysis.
On a related note, an optimistic mindset can be an important part of individual resilience. Optimists tend to disengage rapidly from problems that appear to be unsolvable, as they know when to cut their losses and turn their attention to problems that they believe they can solve. The process of reframing allows them to approach hardship as a challenge and to find opportunities embedded in adversity.
It is possible to cultivate optimism. For instance, it has been shown that walking with a spring in your step makes you mentally more positive, whereas slouching over can make you feel more depressed.
For any training, whether physical, cognitive, or emotional, it is important to be disciplined and systematic in planning and executing the training sessions. By repeatedly integrating a specific style of thinking, you can strengthen the areas and functions related to high resilience and can thus become more resilient to stress.
It is possible to take responsibility for building your resilience capabilities by finding and imitating resilient role models, facing your fears, solving rather than avoiding problems, learning from failure, seeking and attracting social support, keeping your body in good physical shape through exercise, etc.
Learn to assess risks
When should you take a risk? Gamble your money, your reputation, your job or your marriage? A lot of what we do involves a gamble of sorts: You wager a stake or investment in hope of gaining a benefit of some kind. The problem is that we are notoriously bad at understanding probabilities. If we weren’t, none of us would buy Lotto tickets.
Rationally, you should only take a gamble when the probability of winning times the value of winning exceeds the probability of losing times the value of your stake. Mathematically, this can be expressed as p(win)•v(win) > p(loss)•v(loss), with ‘p’ representing probability and ‘v’ representing value. In cases with many possible outcomes, you may need to break down probabilities: p(win)•v(win) = p1•v1 + p2•v2 + p3•v3, etc.
In practice, it may be difficult to estimate probabilities and compare the values of winning and losing. For instance, when you buy a movie ticket, you wager that the movie is worth the money – but how do you measure that? The comparison is subjective, though with experience we tend to get a good feel of whether it was worth it to us or not.
Estimating risk is most difficult when the stakes and the benefits are highly asymmetric. Buying a Lotto ticket is inexpensive, but the potential benefit runs into millions of euros, and the magnitude of the benefit blinds gamblers to the minute probability of gaining it. The reverse is also true: many people gamble what they cannot afford to lose for a moderate benefit. A manager embezzling funds from his firm may get a lot of money, but if discovered, he may lose his job, his reputation, his freedom, and possibly any hope for the future. Similarly, a smoker may get some small, everyday pleasure from smoking at the risk of terminal lung cancer.
Before you make a decision involving some kind of risk, particularly with high asymmetry between benefit and loss, you should sit down and make an estimate of the probability equation above. Estimate probabilities and values of winning and losing and do the math. If the equation favours winning, go ahead; if not, it is probably best to not risk it.
Face your fears
Experiencing a bit of fear can be helpful, as facing fear keeps your focus sharp. Too much fear, however, steals resources and can lead to panic, which has a demoralising effect when it comes to pursuing goals. Tim Cooper, an instructor in the Special Forces SERE School of the US Army, puts it like this in the book Resilience(Cambridge University Press 2012): “You can control fear. I can almost even use it for my benefit. But with panic, I can’t control it. And if I let fear get so big that it turns into panic, then that’s when it immobilises me, keeps me from doing what I need to do.”
Resilient people conquer fear and avoid panic by facing their fears and learning to handle them. First, they admit that they are afraid, then they acquire information about what they fear, and finally, they apply skills to master the fear.
Today, the use of biochemical mood stabilisers has become socially acceptable. From year to year, the range of available psycho-pharmaceutical drugs increases, as does the market for human enhancement drugs – substances that are typically used neither as a means of instant gratification nor for the treatment of illness, but instead for the improvement of an individual’s appearance and abilities. People are turning to a diverse range of pharmaceuticals to become stronger, happier or smarter, or to look thinner, younger or more beautiful. The widespread availability of drugs with the potential of improving human attributes, appearances, and abilities has generated a new and growing audience of users.
There are, however, considerable risks associated with the use of enhancement drugs, particularly because many are untested or banned. There may also be serious side effects to long-term use, but these have not yet been examined.
Know your genes
The cost of sequencing the full genome of an individual has decreased to the extent that it has become available to most people, and in the near future, personal genetic knowledge will be available to all.
We are on the path towards personalised health where millions of individuals will share genetic data to create a better understanding of human genomics and how an individual’s genes affect that individual’s mental and physical well-being. Knowing your genetic strengths and weaknesses will be an important part of individual resilience in the future. This will require people to be willing to share genetic data for the sake of personal health while being aware of the dangers of abuse and possible ‘genetic identity theft’. So far, we have only touched the surface of what our genes mean for our health, and sharing your personal genetic data may make you able to ‘subscribe’ to new knowledge about your genetic strengths and weaknesses. This will mean a move away from the ‘tyranny of equality’, where one-size-fits-all is the rule, to a differentiated concept where a person’s individual attributes are considered – but also where everyone is required to take more personal responsibility for their health.
Cultivate your networks
Community and emotional support – having friends, family, and neighbours you can rely on in both crises and in everyday situations – has always been an important part of resilience. However, the concept of community is changing in a world characterised by globalisation and urbanisation.
In the past, the village was central to the concept of a community. In a village, everybody knew everybody, and everybody had a role to play in the community. Today, your community is rarely something you are born with, but rather increasingly something you must build and cultivate. Locality has ceased to be the prime determinant for community; instead, activity and mentality become the prime determinants. It is important to build national or even global networks of people with whom you share professional, social, or cultural values, interests or activities. This way, you take your community with you when you move.
In a rapidly changing world, many competencies become obsolete almost before they are learned. This is particularly true for knowledge. New research in any field often overturns established knowledge. In addition, knowledge is increasingly becoming available to everybody through the internet, thus externalising knowledge: You don’t need to know a piece of information if you know where to find that piece of information.
Skills also often become irrelevant because the focus in society shifts. In the late 18th century, knowledge of complicated rules of etiquette was a required survival tool in the better part of society, but rules of etiquette today are far simpler and more fluid. Not many decades ago, kids in school were taught the importance of having nice handwriting, but with the coming of personal computers, this skill has ceased to be important.
We expect robots and artificial intelligence to take over roughly half of all current jobs over the next twenty years, making the competencies associated with these jobs obsolete. Resilient competencies in this age of automation are skills that are not easily automated. Below, we look at some such competencies.
Creative skills and tools
Computers are not creative. They always do exactly what they are told to do, in the way they are told to do it. Even machine learning involves learning by example rather than original thinking. Hence, creative skills in a broad sense are becoming more important. These include:
Storytelling, which is the heart of culture, entertainment, and promotion.
The scientific method, specifically how to perform good research and how to determine if a theory is valid or not.
Innovative skills: How to invent or design a new product, service or business model.
Modelling skills and tools: Visualising ideas, products or projects, physically or in computers.
It is one thing to be told things, quite another to learn or understand them. While computers may learn to speak and write a language, knowing how to use it for best effect is still a human competency – particularly because language involves far more than words. Stance, intonation and tempo are also important. Important future communication skills include:
Literacy in a broad sense: How to use language correctly and to the best effect.
Being good at communicating complex or novel ideas.
Inspiring, persuading or convincing people as a politician, manager, salesman, innovator or free agent.
Being able to cooperate with others in groups, including doing cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural work with people from radically different backgrounds.
Being aware of the world around you and how it works, beyond your immediate national, social or professional environment, makes you better able to cope with changes and puts your situation into a larger context. This includes:
Global awareness: What are the most important political, economic, and cultural entities in the world, and what are the most important current events and shifts?
Environmental awareness: Knowledge of how the global and local ecosystems work.
Scientific literacy: Basic knowledge of natural and social science and an understanding of basic economic concepts.
Knowledge about health and wellness, including nutrition, diet, exercise and public health and safety.
Personal change management
In a changing world, you need to constantly learn new skills and adapt to new situations. Competencies in this regard include:
Just-in-time learning: The ability to quickly learn new skills, competencies, and tools when the need arises.
Adaptability: When an unforeseen event occurs, bend like the straw rather than break like the oak. Even when a situation at first seems like a turn for the worse, it may hold opportunities.
Tool use: Many tools – physical or mental – can be used for a wide variety of tasks, and hence, a facility with tools can be adapted to many situations.
Today’s educational system is a relic of the Industrial Age. Primary education is designed to let everybody out after 9-10 years with the exact same skill set, regardless of talent or inclination. People then spend 2-3 years in secondary education and 5-8 years in tertiary education.
However, for a society to be resilient it needs resilient individuals with resilient competencies; hence, it is important that the educational system is designed to provide these. We need to redesign education for an age of automation and constant change.
Tomorrow’s educational system needs to be much more individualised. We also need to see a shift in the focus of education from ‘just-in-case learning’, where you are taught all sorts of things that you might need later in life, all of it before you are released into the wild (so to speak), to ‘just-in-time learning’, where you teach yourself the skills you need when the need arises. In other words; a shift from ‘learning before life’ to ‘learning throughout life’.