Most people aren’t resilient to life’s hardships, researchers find

Previous research has found that, when faced with a negative life event, most people fare well when left well alone. Studies found that, after divorce, unemployment, or the death of a spouse, the majority of people proved resilient, maintaining stable high life satisfaction scores before and after each event.

But these findings have been questioned in a paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science this month.

Two psychology professors from Arizona State University repeated studies on resilience but with larger data samples and without the assumptions used to categorize people in earlier work.

Their research, which looked at 1,214 who suffered spousal loss, 1,579 who divorced, and 2,461 who experienced unemployment, found that resilience is far less common than previously thought. The data were collected from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study between 1984 and 2011.

Earlier work assumed that all groups of people—those classified as stable and less stable, for example—would have similar rates of recovery post adversity. When the researchers adjusted their model to remove this restriction, they found that resilience was actually the least common response in all three categories. And when the statistical model was adjusted again, to take into account for variations in responses within each group of people, they once again found that resilience was the minority response.

Contrary to previous work, the study shows that it takes most people several years to return to normal after a significantly stressful life event. And it suggests that simply giving people time to heal by themselves might not be effective.

Co-author Frank Infurna told Science Daily that it shows it can be far better to intervene and help people cope with negative life events. In his paper, he suggests that it’s worth considering whether widespread preventive measures could even be introduced after a national trauma, such as 9/11.

“Previously it was thought such interventions may not be a good utilization of resources or could be detrimental to the person,” he said. “But based on our findings, we may need to rethink that and to think after the event: What are the best ways that we can help individuals to move forward?”

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