I wish you peace, joy, gratitude, and purpose in 2021.
This has been one of the most difficult years for our family, and I am guessing it may have been difficult for you, too, or someone you know and love. It has been stressful if for no other reason than the fact that we have been living with a pandemic for ten months, and it has changed all our lives in one way or another. Kids have been in school, then virtually schooled at home, then back in school, and will likely be virtually schooled, again, as the end of the pandemic is not in sight. Parents who work outside of the home have had to find new ways to be available for their young kids at home or to find others to supervise their kids while they are at work, if they are lucky enough to have work. So many are out of work and are housing and food insecure. And, millions have lost a loved one or know someone who has lost a loved one from the pandemic. On a more hopeful note, vaccinations are becoming available and are a light at the end of a very long tunnel, but we will not likely completely return to “normal” for quite some time.
What happens to us when our sense of security is uprooted, or we feel completely ungrounded in such unstable times?
Well, it seems different folks respond to adversity in different ways. Throughout my life as a psychotherapist, I have always been curious why that is. Why do two people respond to the same trauma or crisis in very different ways? I have found in my exploration of this topic that resilience, grit, and post-traumatic growth are what make the difference.
According to Psychology Today, resilience is defined as the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.
Angela Duckworth, PhD, clinical psychologist, researcher, and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania is a pioneering grit researcher. Grit is defined by Dr. Duckworth as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back. It is the act of getting up again and again when we struggle, falter, or temporarily fail. It is the determination and motivation to keep going, to press on despite our struggles. Resilience and grit operate hand-in-hand.
After studying 16,000 people, Angela Duckworth found that “grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.” For example, gritty people don’t have a job — they have a calling in life. Duckworth explains it with this story:
Three bricklayers are asked, “What are you doing?” The first says, “I am laying bricks.” The second says, “I am building a church.” The third says, “I am building the house of God.” The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.
It feels like it is not always possible but finding purpose or meaning in one’s suffering is a step beyond resilience and grit. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor, noted in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I completely understand if you are thinking, “Yeah, but that is almost impossibly hard.” Dr. Frankl would respond, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Kasley Killam, a psychology researcher and author of Scientific American article, “How to Find Meaning in Suffering: Useful Insights into Research on Post-Traumatic Growth,” writes:
As we cope with struggles in our own lives and witness other people’s struggles unfold in the news, a common response is to search for an underlying significance that might make our devastation more bearable. This process of making meaning out of misery can be beneficial. For example, cancer patients who derive meaning from their medical experiences have greater psychological adjustment. Likewise, following the death of a family member, people who make sense of their loss and even find benefits in it, experience less distress. [Viktor] Frankl wrote extensively about this process after observing that his fellow inmates were more likely to survive the horrific conditions if they held on to a sense of meaning.
To understand how this process is possible, researchers have studied a fascinating phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. According to the research, post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning. Survivors of sexual assault report post-traumatic growth as early as two weeks later, but the timeline and nature of growth varies from person to person.
Five positive changes signal post-traumatic growth and provide a useful framework for how to make the best out of the worst situations. The first is personal strength. Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. For instance, a car crash survivor reported that the incident motivated her to take charge of her life with greater determination and willpower. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.
The second is relationships. Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making. For instance, women emerging from intimate partner violence undergo more growth if they discuss their abuse with a role model. Suffering may also prompt us to be more compassionate toward others: A recent study out of Yale and MIT showed that survivors of violence felt more empathy for Liberian refugees and therefore acted more altruistically, such as by hosting the refugees in their homes.
The third way to grow from trauma is through greater life appreciation. Tragedy can shift our perspective, inspire us to value good things more, and renew our intention to make the most of our lives. One approach to focusing on gratitude is to sit down once a week and write a list of things for which you are grateful from the week prior. Researchers found that this exercise was linked to higher life satisfaction, more optimism, and fewer health complaints. Another strategy is to savor and fully enjoy the things that bring us joy, such as a hot mug of coffee, the sunset, or spending time with a friend.
The fourth is beliefs, which may change or be reinforced as a result of grief. As researchers explain, people may evolve existentially to see themselves and their role in the world differently or to feel a new spiritual connection, which can influence their sense of purpose or their faith, respectively. For instance, religious parents whose child is diagnosed with cancer might understand their struggle as God’s will, consistent with their previous beliefs. Conversely, they may question whether God exists at all, thereby challenging their previous beliefs. Research suggests that individuals benefit from attempting to reconstruct or reaffirm their sense of meaning in this way.
Lastly, the fifth positive change is new possibilities. In the aftermath of trauma, people may perceive that new opportunities are available and pursue them. Consider a man who gets fired, feels ashamed and depressed, but soon after starts working on what he is truly passionate about, which wasn’t possible at his former job. One method of identifying new possibilities is to envision your ideal life in the future and strategize about bringing that vision to fruition. A study showed that people felt significantly happier after spending twenty minutes each day for four days writing about their imagined best possible selves or planning their goals. Plus, this activity can increase optimism.
By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development.
The bottom line is to get crystal clear on your “why,” your "what," and your "how." Why do you do what you do? What do you want your life to be about? What is your purpose? What is the purpose and meaning of the struggles of 2020 for you? How does your purpose benefit the people around you? How do you take steps toward your purpose?
It is important to remember these basics or to understand them for the first time. I think of the answers to these questions as the roadmap to a 2021 full of resilience, grit, and growth.
 Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner/Simon & Schuster.  Frankl, Viktor E. (Viktor Emil), 1905-1997. Man's Search for Meaning; an Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston :Beacon Press, 1962.  Killam, Kasley “How to Find Meaning in Suffering: Useful Insights from Research on Post-Traumatic Growth,” Scientific American, Dec. 15, 2015.