Resilience Is Nothing New

The challenge inherent in helping readers approach resilience as a concept lies particularly in its vagueness and in the fact that it appears in various—by no means just academic—contexts. As a phenomenon, resilience really isn’t anything new; after all, humankind has always been interested in good strategies for overcoming difficulties or crises. Most stories of heroism are about precisely this.

It often happens that resilience is likened to a tree in the wind, flexibly but steadfastly withstanding nature’s forces. And from Greek philosophy, we know the image of the helmsman who steers the ship—and thus also his own life—safely through even the stormiest of waters, assuredly demonstrating his imperviousness to crises.

The Elastic Human Being?

A newer phenomenon is the academic study of resilience by various disciplines (ranging from psychology to engineering and on to ecology, computer science, and many other fields). Derived from the Latin term resilere (meaning “to bounce back” and standing for concepts like “tonicity, elasticity, durability”), the term was actually borrowed from the study of physical materials. There, it describes the quality of those elements that revert or “bounce back” to their original forms even after having been subjected to extreme external forces. In the psychological discourse, resilience is defined as the ability of an individual to deal successfully with stressors and the negative consequences of stress. Terms such as stress-resistance, psychological robustness, or psychological elasticity are frequently employed as synonyms. The counterpart of resilience is vulnerability—i.e., the propensity to be injured or be sensitive to (unfavourable) external influences.

Regarding the history of psychological research into the phenomenon of resilience, one should mention the so-called Kaua’i Study by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith1: in 1955, these two researchers initiated a longitudinal study on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i in which they accompanied 698 children over a period of 40 years. This study produced the following findings: people who grow up in comparable environments and are subject to risk factors such as poverty, violence, and limited educational opportunities may still exhibit positive development toward adulthood contingent on specific personal characteristics and behaviours. There followed further social science research that looked into precisely these protective factors in greater detail.

Resilience as a Learnable Skill or an Individual Challenge

According to the present state of knowledge2, resilience encompasses a highly complex interaction between an individual’s personal characteristics and their living environment that involves constitutional and learned resources as well as resources available elsewhere. And it is assumed3 that resilience, in contrast to intelligence, can be developed further via special kinds of training and depends mostly on the improvement of internal and (in part) external resources.

As is the case with so many preventive (health) measures, the danger of a definition that points strongly to the learning of skills lies in a neoliberal logic of self-optimisation—for if resilience can be learned, is it not then a matter of individual “failure” and inability if stressors are dealt with badly? After all, one can learn how to do so well.

It is since the political transformation of the notion of health, at the latest, that resilience has been truly en vogue as a concept. The WHO’s current definition of health views it as a state of consummate physical, mental, and social well-being. And ever since the WHO’s Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion of 1986, the objective has been to expand healthcare systems beyond the treatment of illnesses—placing the focus on health competency, health promotion, and prevention as a broad-based, positive concept (salutogenesis)4. This represented a shift away from a focus on pathogenic factors. In 2015, this idea was once again taken up as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, which even includes special emphases on the improvement of well-being and psychological health. Here, resilience is a central concept—similar to the insurance companies’ anti-smoking or anti-sugar campaigns of yesteryear. The other side of the coin has been the declaration of lung cancer or diabetes as individual problems and the simultaneous denial of systemic involvement. And what’s more, the fact that the health insurers went from being called Krankenkassen [lit. “funds for the ill”] to being called Gesundheitskassen [lit. “health funds”] has frequently entailed zero change in attitude.

“Post-Traumatic Growth”

For resilience to exist at all, two prerequisites must be fulfilled: a stressful situation must be or have been present, and it must have been successfully dealt with. It follows that we have no ability to predict resilient behaviour. And it is rare for resilience to be manifested in all areas of life, being by no means a stable construct but in fact quite difficult to grasp. One can, however, ascertain that people who have been through traumatic experiences often speak of something that could be termed “post-traumatic growth”: according to Tedeschi5, 70 percent of people who have experienced a deep-reaching crisis report having become more satisfied and stronger in the long run.

Such painful setbacks and experiences sometimes provide affected individuals with clarity regarding where they want their lives to be headed. They speak of valuing life all the more, an intensification of personal relationships, spiritual consciousness, and having both become aware of their own strengths and discovered new possibilities in life. The impetus to deal with fundamental convictions regarding one’s own life and hence questions of meaning is something that often only arises from a distressing event6. In critical moments, doubts as to one’s own basic values and general fundaments come to the fore with particular intensity, providing an opportunity to grow and learn since new answers are required for questions such as whether one’s own worldview is also well suited to times of suffering and crisis.

A Test for the World

According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the coronavirus pandemic has confronted humanity with its most serious crisis since World War II—and hence the greatest test the world has experienced since the founding of the United Nations 75 years ago7. It is thus to be hoped that the focus will now shift from an individual perspective to a global one. Guterres also stated that we have reached a crossroads: once the crisis has been overcome, global society will be faced with the decision of whether it wants to return to the pre-COVID status quo or make a concerted effort to tackle the factors that render the world vulnerable to pandemics. It is therefore also necessary to rethink the abovementioned definition of resilience (in which materials or human beings bounce back to their original forms even after having been subjected to extreme external influences) in just as deliberate a manner as we should reconsider assumptions of human invulnerability. After all, human beings’ duality entails that we are both sensitive and vulnerable (to phenomena such as natural disasters, for instance) and hence ultimately in possession of insight as to our own mortality. And we are resilient—when have to be.

  1. Werner, E. (1971): The Children of Kauai: A Longitudinal Study from the Prenatal Period to Age Ten. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  2. Wustmann, C. (2014); Resilienz. Widerstandsfähigkeit von Kindern in Tageseinrichtungen fördern. Mülheim an der Ruhr: Verlag an der Ruhr.
  3. Mourlane, D. (2012): Resilienz. Die unentdeckte Fähigkeit der wirklich Erfolgreichen (1st Edition). Göttingen: BusinessVillage GmbH.
  4. Antonovsky, A. (1997): Salutogenese. Zur Entmystifizierung der Gesundheit. Tübingen: dgvt-Verlag.
  5. Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  6. Schnell, T. (2020): Psychologie des Lebenssinns. Berlin, New York, Tokio, Heidelberg: Springer.
  7. [23. 7. 2021]
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