Stress & resilience: How adversity builds character

It has often been said that adversity builds character. How does this work? Research on resilience suggests a metaphor: Comparing the building of resilience with the building of strength through physical exercise.

Two quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt capture this:

Do one thing everyday that scares you.


I believe that anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps doing them until he gets a record of successful experiences behind him.

You cannot get stronger without exercising (say, for instance, lifting weights). For the training to be significant, you have to go beyond your comfort zone.

However, there is an important note of caution: If you lift weights that are way too heavy for you, you get injured. Then, not only do you not get stronger, you’re not even able to exercise any more, until the injury is healed.

The practical implications are very clear:

– You need to be challenged in order to grow. As you successfully overcome challenges, you build resilience, i.e. the ability to successfully face other challenges.

– But, if the challenges are overwhelming, i.e. too far beyond your capacity to handle adversity, you get traumatized. I use the word “traumatized” to describe a situation that is similar to the physical injury that comes from exercising way beyond your abilities: This reduces your capacity to function effectively, let alone face adversity. You can’t make significant progress until this is healed.

The following is excerpted from an article in The New York Times: On Road to Recovery, Past Adversity Provides a Map, by Benedict Carey:

Research suggests that resilience may have at least as much to do with how often people have faced adversity in past as it does with who they are — their personality, their genes, for example — or what they’re facing now. That is, the number of life blows a person has taken may affect his or her mental toughness more than any other factor.

“Frequency makes a difference: that is the message,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their support networks — to learn who their real friends are. That kind of learning, we think, is extremely valuable for subsequent coping,” up to a point.

In a study appearing in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr. Cohen Silver, E. Alison Holman, also of the University of California, Irvine, and Mark D. Seery, of the State University at Buffalo, followed nearly 2,000 adults for several years, monitoring their mental well-being with online surveys. The participants, a diverse cross section of Americans between the ages of 18 and 101, listed all of the upsetting life events they had experienced before entering the study and any new ones that hit along the way. These included divorce, the death of a friend or parent, a serious illness, and being in a natural disaster.

Or, none of the above: A subset of the participants, 194, reported that they had experienced not one of the fairly comprehensive list of 37 events on the survey. “We wondered: Who are these people who have managed to go through life with nothing bad happening to them?” Dr. Cohen Silver said. “Are they hyper-conscientious? Socially isolated? Just young? Or otherwise unique?”

They weren’t, the researchers found. Stranger still, they were not the most satisfied with their lives. Their sense of well-being was about the same, on average, as people who had suffered up to a dozen memorable blows.

It was those in the middle, those reporting two to six stressful events, who scored highest on several measures of well-being, and who showed the most resilience in response to recent hits.

In short, the findings suggest that mental toughness is something like the physical strength: It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked. Some people in the study reported having had more than a dozen stressful events, and it showed.

“These people were truly suffering,” Dr. Cohen Silver said, “and we do not minimize in any way the pain of such events when you’re going through them. But it does appear that if you’ve had several such experiences but not too many, you learn something.”

The above was excerpted from an article in The New York Times’ Science section, January 5,2011: On Road to Recovery, Past Adversity Provides a Map, by Benedict Carey