Friday, February 5, 2010

Resilience: The Science of Equanimity

“He who gains a victory over other men is strong; but he who gains a victory over himself is all powerful.”
~ Lao Tzu

A few weeks ago I sat in a conference room in a New York City hotel as Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. gave a lecture on “The Science of Resilience: Why Some People Thrive and Others Fail.”

Dr. Shatté is currently managing director and principal of Adaptiv Learning, a company that helps other companies teach their employees to be more successful. He was previously adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-author of the book The Resilience Factor. You could safely say he is a resilience expert.

Andrew Shatté is a singularly entertaining speaker who knows how to win over his audience with humor and personal anecdotes. But it wasn't all fun and games; some of his observations provided the audience with surprising moments of self-awareness. His fundamental message: resilience is not blind perseverance, nor is it a function of genetics or intelligence; instead, resilience is the intelligent deployment of limited assets and a particular thinking style — and it is a skill that can be learned.

Wherever academics talk about psychological balance, they’re likely to bring up Epictetus, the Greek slave whose serenity and self-control led to his freedom and eventual acclaim as the leading philosopher of Rome. Epictetus maintained we are all the masters of our own feelings and lives. Although it's believed he wrote nothing down, here are some of the philosophical tenets attributed to him:

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

“Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.”

As Dr. Shatté noted, in today's world the philosophy of Epictetus is most commonly expressed in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known Serenity Prayer. The prayer has become a mantra at most twelve-step programs, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, it goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
As we all know, wisdom is the tricky part.

Another man who knew a great deal about resilience was Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905–1997).  Frankl developed his understanding of defeat and resilience, as well as his existential therapeutic approach, while imprisoned in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. His book about his experiences, Man's Search for Meaning, later became a best-seller. Frankl's fundamental insight has much in common with that of Epictetus: “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." You can read more about Viktor Frankl's philosophy and download recordings of lectures and interviews at the Web site of the Viktor Frankl Institut in Vienna.

When he was teaching at Penn, Andrew Shatté was part of the team that established the Penn Resliency Project — a research program that teaches children and adolescents how to cope with life's setbacks and disappointments. So far, the program has studied over 2,000 children in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Coincidentally, a few days before the lecture, National Public Radio broadcast a story about the Penn project titled “Emotional Training Helps Kids Fight Depression.” I encourage everyone to go to the NPR Web site, read the story and listen to the podcast. In nine fascinating minutes, it will open your eyes and maybe even lift your mood.

Still to be determined: when will we have a Penn Resiliency Project for adults?

“Don't wish me happiness — I don't expect to be happy, it's gotten beyond that, somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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