Opinion: positive psychology looks at how people survive, bounce back and thrive from the inevitable losses that no human can avoid

By Paul D'AltonUCD

Trauma is a fact of life. All of us will experience illness, accidents, bereavement, crime or failure of various kinds at some point in our lives. It is inevitable and such inevitability has been described as the "adult facts of life". When trauma strikes, things change in an instant. Life as we know it is irrevocably changed.  What we once cherished, what once defined us and gave us a sense of meaning and purpose in the world is taken away. 

It is how we respond to trauma and loss that will determine our happiness, our well-being and ultimately our survival. Many of us will go under, get depressed, become hopeless and helpless when trauma and loss strike. Some of us bounce back, defying expectations and even seem to flourish after a life trauma. This capacity to bounce back is essentially what we are talking about when we refer to resilience.

Resilience is not about trying to arrange one's life in a facile attempt to avoid the inevitable losses that we will suffer as humans. There is no way to avoid the adult facts of life. Human resilience is about our capacity to bounce back from the inevitable losses that no human can avoid. 

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Resilience is currently a hot topic in psychology and way beyond. It is gaining prominence in the corporate world, in parenting, sport, politics and healthcare.  We are nonetheless at the early stages in terms of understanding human resilience. This is partly because psychology, the science that tries to understand human behaviour, has historically focused on those who did not cope well in the face of trauma.

Until recently, the focus of most psychological research, and subsequently many of the programmes we developed, was almost exclusively concerned with and targeted at things that went wrong, things that were not working properly. It focused on children who failed at school, on relationships that didn’t work, on cruelty and selfishness, depression and anxiety. We overlooked the people who survived and flourished in the face of trauma. We overlooked the ordinary human being who managed to live a happy life and tended to see the world through a lens of what was wrong with people as opposed to what was right with them. 

At the heart of resilience, our bounce back-ability, is growing our capacity to cope with not getting what we want

We labelled and categorised a whole range of human behaviours into disorders which we compiled into a tome called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which contains a detailed description of a whopping 297 disorders! When I was training in clinical psychology, we used to have great fun flicking through it and finding a disorder that suited the occasion or a supervisor we didn’t like!

The manual has an entire range of personality disorders, from caffeine use disorder to persistent complex bereavement disorder to multiple mood disorders. In many ways, it's emblematic of our obsession with what’s wrong with people as opposed to what’s right with people. Many of us in the psychology business tend to go after what’s not working, what’s broken, what isn’t going well. We have tended to be problem-focused as opposed to strengths-focused. 

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But in the early 1990s, a psychologist called Martin Seligman began making waves when he introduced the idea of "positive psychology". This has nothing to do with positive thinking and a plethora of recent publications extolling the virtues of positivity and the so-called law of attraction. The belief that if we think positively, we can change the outcome of events, the trajectory of a disease or the winning numbers  of a national lottery is a form of magical thinking and magical thinking normally comes to an end when we are about seven years of age.

Seligman's positive psychology radically shifts the lens to focus on individuals and communities that survive trauma and adversity. It sets out to understand what constitutes and underpins human resilience and then further understand how to cultivate or build these factors in individuals and in communities. It is concerned with how people survive and sometimes thrive following a trauma. In a nutshell, it is concerned with human resilience.

Some of the first research concerning resilience was published a few decades before Seligman popularised resilience in the context of positive psychology. Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner, who was key in the early work on resilience, led a 40 year longitudinal study of nearly 700 infants in Hawaii. This cohort of children were growing up in poverty, sometimes with alcoholic parents or parents with significant mental health difficulties. Werner found that two-thirds of these kids really struggled, often with addiction problems and dropping out of school, but one-third did not. She called the one-third, the kids that bounced-back, "resilient".

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Werner discovered that the one-third who displayed resilience shared some things in common, among them was the presence of a caring adult in their lives. This finding was replicated decades later by research in UCD which found that what protected young people was the presence of one good adult in their lives. 

Positive psychology is concerned with these kind of research findings and puts these human factors under the scientific lens of investigation. Things like compassion and love, forgiveness, empathy and determination, kindness and altruism became the focus of scientific inquiry. This is scientific study that is concerned with the human potential to be courageous, to forgive, to aspire to a different world, to fight against injustice and inequality. 

At the heart of resilience, our bounce back-ability, is growing our capacity to cope with not getting what we want. It is essentially coming to terms with the adult facts of life and living a more wholehearted life in the middle of not getting what we want. 

Dr Paul D'Alton is Associate Professor at the School of Psychology at UCD and Principal Clinical Psychologist at St Vincent's University Hospital. He is the presenter of Survivors, a TV series featuring individuals who have shown amazing courage and resilience after experiencing trauma. The final show in the series is broadcast tomorrow (RTÉ 1, Tuesday October 22nd, 11.15pm) and previous episodes can be watched on the RTÉ Player


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ