This thing called ‘resilience’

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Insight at Research First

With our head office in Christchurch, one of the things we get asked to talk a lot about here at Research First is resilience.

Like many people, you may be tired of hearing about Christchurch and earthquakes, but events like Edgecumbe and Kaikoura remind us that recovery starts with preparation. And that being resilience is the price we all need to pay for living ‘out here on the edge’ (to borrow a line from Dave Dobbyn).

Shortly after Christchurch’s September 2010 earthquake, I was asked to speak to a group of journalists and policy makers about community resilience. In those months after the September earthquakes, and before the devastation of the February one, there was a real sense of both optimism and relief in Christchurch. There was also a profound sense of pride in how the community came together to support one another when it was needed most.

In that speech I talked about how William James, the so-called ‘father of modern psychology’, long ago talked about how communities needed the ‘moral equivalent of war’ to mobilise the best from their members. James’s point was that a heightened sense of stress was necessary to overcome what he called “the ordinary prides and shames of social man” in order to bring people together for the greater good.

In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised that adversity and challenge can bring out the best in us. Few have put this better than JFK who, when committing the USA to the landing a man on the moon, was clear that he chose that goal “not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

In many ways, the Christchurch earthquakes, by providing us with James’s ‘moral equivalent of war’ served to ‘organise and measure the best’ of our own energies and skills. In the process, they have demonstrated a great deal about how to build resilient communities.

‘Resilience’ as a word is a bit like ‘empowerment’, it has been stretched to cover so many things that it’s easy to believe it’s been emptied of any real meaning. But the original idea is one that is worth hanging on to: it describes the ability to cope with and recover from problems and challenges. Note that resilience is not about eliminating adversity but about finding the strength to respond to it.

Given that people often respond to the same challenges in very different ways, it is easy to think that resilience is something innate. So in the same way that some people are born with better singing voices than others, some people are simply more resilient.

In contrast, psychologists now believe that resilience is a learned skill. In particular, what matters is how people frame adversity and how much agency they think they have to respond. The key here is what is known as ‘an internal locus of control’, which is a sense that you and not your circumstances shape what you can accomplish. Although it seems trivial, how we label what happens to us plays an important part in the effect it has on us. Of course, there’s more to it than that too: your access to social, human, and economic capital all play a role here. But, as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus told us 2,000 years ago, while what happens to us may be out of our control, how we react to it never is.

The value of thinking about resilience as a skill is that, as with all skills, it’s developed through use. In this regard it makes more sense to think of resilience as a verb than a noun. This is especially pertinent in Christchurch (given just how much distress the people in that city have had to bear since 2010) but it’s hardly unique. There’s a great quote by Chekov that I think sums up those years perfectly: it says “any idiot can face a crisis [but] it is this day-to-day living that wears you out”.

Given this, the lesson from the social sciences is that we need to keep doing the things that support resilience. This one-day-at-a-time approach sits at the heart of the outstanding All Right? campaign ( developed in Christchurch and its approach is as useful now as it was in October 2010.

Yet while Christchurch has created a natural experiment in how to grow resilient communities, it’s hard to understand why we’re not sharing what we’ve learned with the world. For instance, why hasn’t the All Right? campaign been rolled-out across the country (or beyond)? Why aren’t we teaching about the framing and labelling of adversity in our primary and secondary schools? And why aren’t the lessons from Chekov and Epictetus better known? It might seem obvious that you need adversity to demonstrate resilience but do we really need to wait?

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.