As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re profiling six impressive women in the field of positive psychology who have used scientific research to teach us about building resilience. Why is resilience important, you ask? It’s about turning setbacks into comebacks. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that?
Before we get going, let’s take a closer look at the meaning of building resilience. Then we’ll tell you what the badass women of positive psychology can teach us about it. Get ready to get empowered.
What Does Building Resilience Mean?
To answer this question, we first have to know what resilience is. Resilience is the process of bouncing back from difficult experiences. We all experience setbacks, and we all get frustrated and saddened by events in our lives. Building resilience means practicing actions and thoughts that help you work through those setbacks in a positive way.
6 Powerhouse Women of Positive Psychology and Their Findings on Resilience
1. Karen Reivich
You might have heard about her from her 2003 book The Resilience Factor. Yes, Dr. Reivich literally wrote the book on resilience. She also provides workshops about resilience and even offers her UPenn Resilience Skills course through Coursera.
What she taught us about resilience: Dr. Reivich explains that resilience is not a personality trait that people are born with, but a skill that everyone can learn and improve over time.
She takes the mystery out of building resilience by breaking the concept down into a set of six do-able competencies:
- Mental agility
- Strengths of character
Think of it as a guided mental-fitness routine for tuning up your thinking patterns.
What it means for you: Dr. Reivich’s book is filled with practical strategies to try, including science-backed steps to build your optimism.
- Noticing the positive things around you…and expecting that more positive things will come.
- Paying attention to the things you can control.
- Taking action on those things in a purposeful way.
Ready to try it yet?
Fun fact: Dr. Reivich teamed up with Pepperidge Farm to record a series of podcasts called Fishful Thinking. It’s a fun and approachable way for parents and kids to learn about building resiliency.
2. Angela Duckworth
You might have heard about her from her 2016 book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance or her TED Talk of the same name. Dr. Duckworth pioneered the concept of grit, which has been making waves from research to talk shows to classrooms. It’s a hot topic in psychology and education, and she’s at the helm.
What is grit? In her own words…
What she taught us about resilience: Dr. Duckworth pulled together related strands of research by defining grit as passion + perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals. Before this, we knew that conscientiousness can be helpful for short-term struggles. And we had some evidence that goals aligned with passion can be helpful for motivation. Dr. Duckworth formed these concepts into a crystal-clear recipe for building resilience long term.
What it means for you: Apply one of your long-term goals to Dr. Duckworth’s formula: grit = passion + perseverance. Then ask yourself:
- Are you truly passionate about this goal?
- In the daily grind that all meaningful goals require, do you persevere against setbacks? Or do you let them stop you?
Figuring out which part of the equation is your weak spot could help you determine ways to improve your habits. Or find a new goal that better fits your passions. Want more grit? Take this quiz to see where you fall on the grit scale.
Fun fact: She left the business world in her late twenties to teach in New York City public schools. As a teacher, she noticed the importance of grit and used her classroom experiences to guide her research.
3. Carol Dweck
You might have heard about her from her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or her 2014 TED Talk. Dr. Dweck kickstarted the field of mindset research by demonstrating the power of having a growth mindset and its effect on motivation. In September 2017, she earned the prestigious Yidan Prize for Education Research, securing 3.9 million dollars to continue her work.
What she taught us about resilience: A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can grow over time through hard work and persistence, rather than being dependent on talent or base-line intellect. It’s a healthy attitude that is also biologically true—we now know that the brain has incredible plasticity that persists well into adulthood. The growth mindset allows you to see setbacks as opportunities to improve.
What it means for you: Take two minutes to watch a video explaining how the brain changes and grows over time. Short videos like this one have been used to help people develop a growth-mindset since Dr. Dweck popularized the concept over a decade ago.
Fun fact: Dr. Dweck had an aha moment when she overheard two college students discussing whether or not to major in computer science despite struggling through an extremely difficult introductory course. In her book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, she describes how the students never even considered the possibility that they could be “bad” at computer science. Instead, they talked about the opportunity to work hard, improve, and succeed in a challenging field, and how it stacks up against other opportunities. These students served as real-life examples of people who embrace challenges with what Dweck calls a growth mindset.
4. Sonja Lyubomirsky
You might have heard about her from her 2008 book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. It was one of the first books to combine the spirit of self-improvement with rigorous scientific accuracy. We highly recommend grabbing a copy if you haven’t read it yet.
What she taught us about resilience: Dr. Lyubomirsky brought happiness research from an academic niche to the mainstream. She has a talent for presenting complex research in a way that everyone can understand and benefit from. She taught us that you have some control over your long-term happiness.
According to her research, about 50 percent of your happiness comes from genetics, about 10 percent is influenced by your circumstances, and about 40 percent you can control yourself. This knowledge helps you be realistic about your expectations while inspiring you to take full advantage of the part of happiness that you can control. Oh and she also tells you how to do that in actionable and science-backed ways. Bow down.
What it means for you: Dr. Lyubomirsky emphasizes that knowledge alone can have profound effects on your happiness and resilience. A new and difficult situation doesn’t seem nearly as devastating when you know that it can only impact a small fraction of your long-term happiness. She also provides a ton of research-backed ways to maximize your 40 percent. And helps you determine which of those ways work best for you and your personality. Grab a copy of the book and take her happiness quiz to get going.
Fun fact: In possibly the coolest research grant ever (and how many times is research considered cool?), Dr. Lyubomirsky earned a million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health with the goal of permanently increasing happiness through applied research.
5. Barb Frederickson
You might have heard about her from her 2009 book Positivity.
What she taught us about resilience: Dr. Frederickson introduced the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The idea is that positive emotions are more than just the absence of negative ones. In short, they have a purpose—they expand our awareness and perspective leading us to have varied thoughts and experiences. And the more open we are to new thoughts and experiences, the more capable we are of building the skills and resources necessary to create resilience in difficult situations.
According to Frederickson in a 2003 article,
…positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary mindset, and by doing so help to build enduring personal resources.
What it means for you: There’s a good chance that one of Dr. Frederickson’s verified techniques for being more resilient is offered in your town: loving-kindness meditation. Sign up for a class or follow this guided practice from home.
Fun fact: Dr. Frederickson recently turned her attention to the one emotion that rules them all: love. Check out her 2013 book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection to learn more.
6. Alia Crum
You might have heard about her from her 2016 TEDMED talk about the power of placebos. Dr. Crum’s career is on the rise, so keep an eye out for her name in the news.
What she taught us about resilience: Using the placebo effect as a starting point, Dr. Crum is building evidence about how the mind can cause changes in the physical world. For example, she’s demonstrated that stress can be helpful as long as you think about it as a normal and useful part of life. And she always backs up her claims with bona fide evidence—in this case by tracking changes in cortisol and hormone levels in the body.
What it means for you: Some of Dr. Crum’s techniques seem like real-life Jedi mind tricks. For example, if you want to feel satisfied after eating a healthy meal, simply describe the food using words such as “indulgent” and “rich”. Doing so has been shown to make people eat more vegetables and feel more satisfied after the meal—with a physical decline in the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin just by using those simple words.
Fun fact: Dr. Crum was a competitive gymnast. She once competed and qualified for nationals despite breaking her ankle three days before the event. Even at age 10, she had an intuition that she could overcome the pain with a positive mindset.
Building resilience, breaking barriers
These kickass women have expanded our understanding of building resilience and demonstrated their own toughness in an often male-dominated scientific field. Their TED talks and books are packed with years of hard-won breakthroughs about how to bounce back from life’s challenges in a healthy way. Choose the talk or book that speaks most strongly to you and get started building resilience today.
Your turn: Feel like building resilience? What woman from our list inspires you to get started?
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Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.