Is it possible to be a better person following the loss of your sight or the acquisition of a major disability? It’s a controversial question for sure.
However the point of the question is to explore why some people thrive in response to extreme life adversities while others just survive. In the past people were simply expected to “pull themselves together” but resilience psychology (1) and the scientific exploration of happiness (4) are helping people to form their own action plans and move beyond helplessness, anger and blame to become resilient instead.
At present there is much talk of being “disability confident” but resilience psychology has led us to develop a broader understanding of where confidence comes from and the different ways it manifests; namely self-confidence, self-esteem and self concept. Self-confidence is the reputation you have with yourself and is nourished by becoming skilful and effective at what you do. Self-esteem is your emotional opinion of yourself and is nurtured by acts of self-praise such as maintaining lists of your own good (and bad) qualities. Self-concept is concerned with your identity and is strengthened if it is based on the effect you have on others lives rather than on personal factors such as your job title, income or physical prowess.
Curiously enough being curious is a highly resilient quality. At school you learn first and then you take a test, but in life you test yourself first and then learn from your success or failure afterwards. The act of learning to walk takes close to three years to perfect, but if we didn’t take a risk, suffer the fall and adjust our actions, we would never learn to do it.
Just as humans learnt, through trial and error, to stand on their own two feet, our language and the concepts we deploy in order to understand the world, moved in the same direction. In Greek mythology Pandora opened the box and unleashed a horde of misfortune but she released hope too. A person can pass hope on to another. Many songs are based upon this possibility, from Sinatra’s “High hopes” to Eddy Grant’s “Give me hope Joanna.” In 1710 Leibniz coined the word optimus to describe God’s perfect universe and optimism took root. Hope is what people have but optimism is what they believe. Optimism began to morph into empowerment with Emerson (6). In 1841 Emerson taught people to take control of their environment in his famous essay on self-reliance. It proved to be an important step in moving the locus of human control from the external to the internal. Belief is central. Seligman, the US psychologist, studied why some animals and some people could not be taught helplessness and after seven years of experiments concluded that resilience could be taught and acquired. (7). Perhaps even better the qualities of hope, optimism, positivity and coping can be combined to enhance resilience.
Finding the silver lining in any cloud, however dark it may be, is a highly resilient quality. “It’s a crazy situation, but what can I do about the bit that’s in my control?” is a good question to ask yourself. Is the blind person a good empathetic listener? Is the person with learning difficulties blessed with great resolve? Is the ex gang member ideally placed to warn current gang members of the risks? Are single mothers the most efficient at time management? Perhaps these are all clichéd questions but they call us all to reflect on the need to be serendipitous. Serendipity is the ability to take a life disrupting event and turn it into a human strength. It is not about synchronicity or good luck, it is about a response to genuine trauma.
Ultimately resilience is about moving to a new state of equilibrium following a shock such as an acquired disability. A person may go through different stages of impact, chaos, adaptation, equilibrium and finally transformation and the mental health consequences might be huge. However, recent research into post traumatic stress disorder has led to the recognition of post traumatic growth too (8) and opened up the possibility of psychological first aid as a form of intervention in a similar way to medical first aid.
Disability Rights UK seeks to promote this positive storyline on disability; one that is energising to the individual and rewarding to their quality of life. The good news is that you become resilient by continuously learning the best way to be yourself.
1) Siebert A, “The Resiliency Advantage” (2008), Berrett Koehler Publishers Ltd, San Francisco
11) Hoehn-Saric, R., Frank, E., Hirst, L.W., and Seltser (1981), “Coping with Sudden Blindness” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7288428
Social Independence has been shown to be statistically related to personality
12) Greenough, T.J., Keegan, D.L., and Ash, D.G., (1978), “Psychological and Social Adjustment of Blind People and the 16PF test” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/641190
4) Sonja Lyubomirsky – http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~sonja/
14) Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J.K., Sheldon K.M. (2011) “Becoming happier takes both a will and a way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being”, Emotion, 11, pp 391-402
15) Boehm, J.K., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K.M. (2011) “A longitudinal experimental study comparing the effectiveness of happiness enhancing strategies in Anglo-Americans and Asian Americans” Cognition and Emotion, 25, pp 1263-1272
16) Sheldon, K.M. and Lyubormirsky, S., (2012) “The challenge of staying happier: Testing the hedonic adaptation prevention model” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, pp 670-680
5) Buzan A – http://www.thinkbuzan.com/uk/
deBono E – “Lateral thinking:creativity step by step” (1970), Harper and Row
6) Ralph Emmerson, “Self Reliance” (1841) – http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm
7) Seligman, M.E., (2006) “Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life”
Post traumatic growth
The Happy Movie
13) “The Happy Movie” directed by Roko Belic (2012) – http://www.thehappymovie.com/
17) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience”, 2002
By Philip Connolly