Happiness isn’t a country. You don’t get there and stay. It’s a fleeting space, a feeling that comes and goes, so focusing on being happy is just a distraction, according to some psychologists. Better to develop resilience, which is a characteristic that you can cultivate to improve the quality of your life in any circumstances.
Resilience is essentially emotional elasticity, the ability to manage changes and difficulties. It’s the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes with some grace, not being derailed by every failure, mistake, or shift in circumstances. The skill is worth learning, says psychologist Anna Rowley—who counsels executives at corporations like Microsoft on cultivating existential “mastery”—because emotional flexibility is exceptionally handy in our rapidly-changing world. Resilience provides you with a personal foundation of strength and sense of safety.
Rowley doesn’t talk about happiness at all. She argues that Americans are culturally obsessed with feeling good when, instead, we should be perfecting perception, our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Rather than dealing with difficulties, Rowley says, people tend to “cope ugly.” We numb ourselves with food, drink, drugs, stuff, sex, or the internet, hoping not to feel anything at all if we can’t just feel happy.
Those efforts to hide from suffering are futile, Rowley says. We learn little from hiding. But by engaging with negative emotions, and learning to see they’re fleeting, we can get better at dealing generally. And every feeling or situation we manage wisely builds on our resilience skills. “Resilience is like a super coping mechanism,” Rowley told Quartz. “It protects against stress in any situation.”
Coping sounds kind of dull compared to happiness but failing to do so can lead to depression. According to writer and clinical psychiatrist Peter Kramer, emotional resilience ensures mental health, and is the opposite of depression. “Depression is fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal,” Kramer writes in his 2005 book Against Depression.
Developing resilience won’t bring happiness but it can help you avoid depression and teach you to heal yourself when you do suffer. Learning to deal will improve your quality of life, says Rowley, yet to get good at it demands facing and engaging the very thing we seek to avoid, most notably our own bad feelings.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience…means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” Rowley differs slightly on this. She argues that “bouncing back” is just an aspect of this skill and not the one that comes first. It would be better, she says, if we learned how to gently and continually stretch ourselves instead of bouncing around. “Rebounding is important but you can’t learn from experience if you hurry,” the psychologist argues.
“Rebound alone takes the personal accountability out of situations and leaves you with no locus of control. What we really need is emotional literacy, to be able to look at our actions and recognize the role of choice in events.”
The late Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and writer, spent half a century studying the minds of people with chronic brain diseases, patients who operated at neurological extremes—some operated super fast, some very slow, some were deeply depressed, others were manic, and some patients alternated between extreme states. In his last just-released book, The River of Consciousness, Sacks refers to resilience as the “middle ground” that gives people mental control and stability. Without it, he notes, patients are “thrown helplessly like puppets” from one behavioral and emotional extreme to the other.
Sacks’ patients suffered from neurological deficits that made it impossible for them to regulate themselves and develop resilience naturally. Most people, however, do have what it takes. If you’ve made it this far in life, you’ve already displayed amazing resilience, and Rowley says you can get better at it.
You don’t have a choice about getting sick or getting laid off from a job, say. But you do have a choice about how you respond to what happens emotionally, and the response will influence how far you fall, how fast you get back on your feet, and what you yield from your difficult experience. To practice responding appropriately, you must get to know yourself emotionally, says Rowley.
You do it by paying attention. Developing a habit of attentiveness is fundamental to building resilience. You can practice with a deceptively simple exercise that the psychologist uses herself and with clients: On the way to work, say, in your car, name three to five things you see, sense, and hear, Rowley suggests. For example, you see traffic is crawling, the sun is climbing in the sky, and that the car in from of you is blue. You sense a chill in the air, that your fingertips are cold against the steering wheel, and that the driver behind you is impatient as he inches closer to your bumper. You hear the hum of traffic on surrounding freeways, angry honking of horns, and the squawking of birds flying overhead.
Making simple mental lists like this might seem silly at first. Who cares about the birds? You’ve got important worries!
But Rowley says the lists teach you simple perceptual shifts from internal to external realities, and help you to see clearly in the moment. She practices the exercise herself as well, every day. When you practice moving between your inner self and the outer world, you stop being a prisoner to emotions and are able to simply note what is, explains Rowley. This helps you make better, fact-based decisions.
No one thing you do today will guarantee your flourishing in the future, warns Rowley. Developing the skill of resilience, however, means you don’t have to fear the failures, mistakes, and changes that lie ahead for all. The confidence that comes from knowing you can manage tough circumstances, makes difficult situations easier to handle, and that is certainly happy news.