Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

I was giving a talk in October at a foundation in downtown Phoenix and while I was discussing definitions of resilience, someone stopped me to ask “Are you saying that resilience is a straight line? I thought resilience meant bouncing back from adversity.” I told them that I too believe that resilience signifies bouncing back from adversity and that this definition of what amounts to a straight line (relatively stable trajectory following adversity) is the most commonly accepted definition in the resilience literature that studies individuals in adulthood and old age. They simply shook their head in astonishment and went back to enjoying their chocolate chip muffin.

This is not the first time and will certainly not be the last time someone says this to me. Especially if the audience is filled with members of the community and not academics. When I cover resilience in my undergraduate course on aging, my students have this same reaction. Some have gone as far to say that one would have to be a robot to exhibit no reaction to an adversity, such as spousal loss or receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Here’s the kicker. Not only is this the commonly accepted definition of resilience, but researchers have gone as far to say that research has confirmed that this type of resilience, defined as exhibiting a relatively stable, healthy trajectory of psychological functioning following adversity is the most common response to adversity. This is something my colleague and I explored in a recent systematic review of the literature. We concluded that resilience is not the common response to adversity, but instead, a recovery trajectory that is characterized by a decline at the time of the adversity, followed by a bounce back over time to near previous levels is the most common response to adversity (see below Figure). I will explore these concepts further in a future story and instead, will focus on what constitutes resilience.

The graph shows some possible response patterns in adults following adversity. The top line (hashed) shows the response that has been reported as the most common. This flat line indicates that living through an adverse event causes minimal or no disruption to psychological functioning. When the data are analyzed with growth mixture models that are set up using appropriate assumptions, the most common response pattern after adversity is shown by the bottom line. The most common response to adversity is a decrease in psychological functioning followed by a return to normal or near-normal after a period of time. Figure created by Kimberlee D’Ardenne

What does it mean to be resilient? Across research teams, there are numerous definitions. The resilience literature has a long and scientifically rich history dating back to the 1950s and 1960s when developmental researchers observed that some children growing up in poverty and who were maltreated showed unexpectedly good mental health and academic achievement. In the developmental literature, resilience is broadly considered “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity (p. 1, Luthar et al., 2000)”. Masten (2014) defines resilience as “the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten the viability, the function, or the development of that system (p. 10)”. Michael Rutter (1987) discusses resilience in a broader light, stating that “Resilience is concerned with individual variations in response to risk. Some people succumb to stress and adversity whereas others overcome life hazards. (p. 317)”.

In the past 15–20 years a literature that focuses on the examination of resilience to adversity in adulthood and old age has emerged. This literature has examined individual’s ability to overcome a diverse array of adversities that are encountered when someone is an adult, such as spousal loss, unemployment, chronic illness, and military deployment. The most common and frequently used definition in this literature defines resilience as “pertains to the ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event, such as the death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning” (p. 20, Bonanno, 2004). Other definitions that have been considered include resilience being “an outcome of successful adaptation to adversity (p. 42, Zautra et al., 2008)”. This connotes that resilience includes two components, the first being that of recovery, or how well do people bounce back and whether they are able to recover fully from adversity, and the second being that of sustainability, or the capacity to continue forward in the face of adversity.

Across the definitions of resilience, two themes emerge. One is that individuals are exposed to an adversity, risk, or stressor. Second, individuals display positive adaptation following the adversity, risk, or stressor. This second part is where things get tricky. What constitutes positive adaptation? Is it stability, a decline followed by a bounce back or a combination of both? This adaptation can take many forms. Individuals may show little to no changes in their mental health. However, individuals may show a decline in mental health immediately following the adversity, with subsequent improvements to near-previous levels over time that is characteristic of recovery. The timing of this recovery is specific to the individual and can range from several months to several years. This is where definitions of resilience across each literature differs. The definition of resilience in the adulthood and old age literature is much more stringent with a recovery trajectory not being considered a form of resilience, whereas the developmental literature considers recovery to be a form of resilience. A key component of examining resilience is to keep in mind that it is a dynamic process, with the positive adaptation component referring to the fact that there are between-person differences in the extent to which individuals bounce back. Not everyone will show the same degree of “bounce back” following adversity and being cognizant of that is of utmost importance.

Ultimately, one could argue that Michael Rutter said it best in his groundbreaking article in 1987 when he wrote that resilience is concerned with individual variations in response to risk. Individuals who lose their spouse, or are diagnosed with cancer or become unemployed will collectively show a great deal of variation in the extent to which they are affected by and adapt following adversity. That is, there is no one set pathway that an individual will follow.

Research has continued to document these differences across individuals in how they respond to adversity. Based on this argumentation, one could argue that the goal of resilience research is to not just document that “resilience happens” but to understand and identify the protective and vulnerability factors that are associated with positive outcomes and can be harnessed in future preventive interventions. In more recent articles, Michael Rutter has expanded on these ideas by arguing that resilience is best defined in terms of individuals’ manifestation of relatively more positive outcomes than others who experienced the same adversity. He additionally asserted that there is no requirement that resilience should be defined as individuals exhibiting superior functioning in relation to the population as a whole (who did not experience the adversity).

Resilience is an individualized phenomena, making it difficult to pinpoint a single definition. When thinking about resilience, there are several important things to keep in mind. First, resilience can take on many forms, i.e., there is no one way for individuals to be resilient; Individuals may show stable high levels of psychological functioning or show a substantial decline as a result of the adversity, followed by improvement to near-previous levels. Either constitutes resilience, with the timing varying across individuals. Second, resilience is going to be dependent on how it is measured. This is an idea my colleague and I explored in a paper that was published in 2017 and written about in the New York Times. In this study, we used publicly available data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics of Australia Study, which annually assesses households in Australia. We analyzed data from participants who experienced spousal loss during the course of their participation in the study. We observed that the proportion of individuals displaying a resilient trajectory to spousal loss differed across the outcomes examined with 66%, 19%, 26%, 37%, and 28% showing a resilient trajectory for life satisfaction, negative and positive affect, general health, and physical functioning, respectively. When taking into account all five outcomes collectively, only 8% showed resilience across all outcomes examined, whereas 20% did not show a resilient trajectory in any outcome examined. This paper exemplifies that the proportion of individuals exhibiting resilience will differ based on the area of functioning (health versus well-being).

Where does this leave us now? The term resilience is widely used in academia and the general public and given its numerous definitions and arenas in which the term is used, this makes things challenging to say the least. It is difficult to settle on one definition and this is ok. As I have stated before, resilience is a dynamic process and more importantly, resilience is an individualized phenomenon. Each individual’s path towards resilience will differ. Just look at the below figure. This is a study in which my colleagues and I used publicly available data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study to examine changes in life satisfaction before and after spousal loss. Participants in the study were assessed once a year and we included participants who reported losing their spouse over the course of the study. The solid black line shows that, on average, individuals showed declines in life satisfaction at the time of and following losing their spouse, with life satisfaction slowly improving over time. The major thing to focus on are the gray lines. There are 50 of them, each representing the data of a participant included in this study who experienced spousal loss. What is striking is how much people differ between one another in the amount that life satisfaction changed at the year of spousal loss (reaction period) and in how much life satisfaction bounced back in the years thereafter (adaptation period). Some individuals showed a quicker bounce back, others were slower to recover and some did not bounce back at all. This adds to the complexity of defining what constitutes resilience.

Model-implied mean (black line) for change in life satisfaction in relation to spousal loss with predicted scores from our latent basis model for a sub-sample of 50 participants (gray lines). Population mean for the 2002 German Socio-economic Panel Study sample is depicted to illustrate how individuals’ life satisfaction compares to mean population average. Changes in life satisfaction are characterized by a multi-stage pattern. Participants who experienced spousal loss, on average, reported declines in life satisfaction in the months and years preceding spousal loss (anticipation), substantial declines in the months surrounding spousal loss (reaction) and did not return back to previous levels following spousal loss (adaptation). Figure is from Infurna et al. (2017).

I hope this shed light on some of the issues being debated in the resilience literature. In future stories, I will explore these issues further, including frameworks for studying resilience and the methodological approaches that are utilized for studying resilience.

Developmental psychologist. Organic farmer.