On Building our Resilience: Part Two




Part Two in a series on Resilience.

Missed part one? You can read that here


‘When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this will help things turn out for the best…’

Eric Idle may have been strapped to a cross and his little ditto a smack of classic comedy in Monty Python Life of Brian, but he wouldn’t be alone in affirming the power of the ‘chin up’, ‘glass is half full’ school of thought, especially when it comes to building resilience.

I’ve been curious about cultivating resilience- the ability to bounce back when the going gets tough. I know this is something I need to practice for personal reasons, and while I am not one for general whistling down the street, I do realise that there are things I can do at both an attitudinal and a behavioural level to improve my bounce-back ability.

I also don’t think I am alone in my need to build resilience. A glance at global labour market trends will tell us that we are seeing the rise of ‘the gig economy’ and the ‘portfolio career’. Individuals will transition across numerous jobs and careers over a longer working lifespan. We are also entering the era of AI and robotics where the jobs of the past are not the jobs of the future. Never before will our creative capacities, our inner leadership, our soft skills, and our ability to adapt to new circumstances be more in demand.

Any change and transition has a related stress. There is a good kind stress, or motivation, which can boost our emotional, mental and physical selves for the job at hand, but then there is bad stress- the long term build up of worry and physical exhaustion, which at a chronic level can have long term effects on our overall wellbeing. Learning to understand the stressors in our lives, and develop effective coping mechanisms and preventative measures, again is more relevant than ever.

So, what can you do?

Back to the whistle. Actively cultivating a positive attitude may sound like mere cheese, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest it’s a keeper. Maureen Gaffney’s brilliant and continually insightful book ‘Flourishing: How to active a deeper sense of well-being, meaning and purpose even when facing adversity’ provides a whole menu of useful tool and resources around positive psychology, and also a magic ratio. ‘Knowing ways to generate and maintain positive feelings and thinking- even under great pressure- is a crucial part of effective coping’, she writes, ‘The heart of resilience.. depends fundamentally on the ability to actively rebalance the positivity and negativity in your life’.

And that balance? Well, it isn’t quite a balance. There is a trick in the mix you see, and it called ‘Negativity Bias’.

We humans can be so hard on ourselves. We get ten good pieces of feedback on a report, and only one bad, but we remember the bad feedback and linger on it for days. We get 80% on an exam, but wonder why we did not do better. Your partner compliments the way you look, but you focus on the stain on the underside of your shirt, or those extra five pounds you want to loose.

Gaffney offers some of the science behind this, explaining that we are actually wired for negativity;

‘Once anything negative appears your brain is on high alert, concentrating of assessing just how negative it is. For instance, you know instantly, without anybody telling you, if you have made a mistake in something you are doing. Within 80-100 milliseconds, there is a change in brain response. There is no similar neurological reaction that takes place when you do something right. Feelings of anxiety, distress, anger or disappointment last much longer than positive reactions to a pleasant experience. And negative events have a stronger and more pervasive effect on your subsequent mood than positive events. Having a good day generally has no noticeable effect on your sense of well-being the following day, whereas having a bad day tends to carry over and influence the next day in a negative way. That is negative bias at work’.

The Magic Ratio

So, how to break the cycle? Focus on the positive. No, really. And it’s to do with the magic ratio.

As Gaffney further explains, ‘It turns out that you need a very particular ratio of positive to negative just to function normally. If you ramp up that ratio above a certain threshold a state of flourishing is established. But there is another invisible threshold that is equally precise. When the ratio of positive to negative falls below that threshold, you are tipped from ‘normal’ mode; into languishing. It is the moment when someone becomes depressed; when a team or an organisation is tipped into a downward vicious cycle’

That magic positive to negative flourishing ratio? 5:1
Yes, you need five times as much positive to negative to really thrive. And just to stay in ‘normal’ state- the ratio is still high at 3:1. Anything less and it’s a slippery slope.

The magic ratio appears in all aspects of our lives: from maintaining good relationships, in work and in our personal connection to ourselves.

Training our Attention.

The Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor takes up this vein of investigation in what he calls ‘The Happiness Advantage’. So often we measure our success, he explains, by the outcome of events. We think, if I get to Harvard, then I will be happy. If I loose those five pounds, or get the next promotion, or just make the next thing happen, then I will be happy. The challenge with this approach, as Achor often very entertainingly argues (see his TED talk), is that when our success metrics are based on external validation, the benchmark for success keep changing. When you get to Harvard, you start comparing yourself to all the others in the class and forget the achievement (hello negativity bias), or when you loose the five pounds and are still not happy, you say, well, when I loose the next five, then…. and so the cycle continues.

But, as Achor proposes; what if this was flipped; what if we focused on happiness first, then success.

It turns out it is to with what we pay attention too. Here we are to back to 5:1

I’m not a scientist, but I started to wonder: could I be more scientific about how I tally the positive to negative in my day to day life, pay more attention to both and actually notice if I am in that positive to negative ratio? So, I took on the experiment, and I recommend you to too. All you need is a pen, a blank piece of paper, and your awareness.

Over the course of a series of days I decided to track things in my day to day life, and record them as either positive or negative at the end of the day. I wanted evidence- sticking to actual events during the day, and not just thoughts that were happening in my head. I opened my journal and drew a line down the centre. To the left, were the positive things, to the right, the negative.

Quickly, the ‘positive’ started to fill up; the smell of freshly grounded coffee, the morning walk by the sea, cuddles with my dog, a phone call with a friend, an email from a client thanking me for a piece of work, the texture of the new pillow, lighting a candle, running my hand along a fence like I did when I was a child, the interaction at the post-office, the hot shower after a long day- a list of daily occurrences which ordinarily I would not have paid so much heed to, but with this mindfulness approach combined with the decision to categorise things, the list seemed to go on. Next, it was time to tally the negative; again sticking with actual concrete things that had happened during the day, and not a list of my worries or a transcript of my inner critic. I had two things on the list: locked out of my website (which I knew was temporary), and an unsubscribe from my mailing list from an old friend (I realised I felt sad to see her go). That is all.

I followed the experiment up the next day. That day, I realised the photographer in me was now in the experiment, and was actively scanning my environment for moments of beauty and positivity: the way the light falls, the roses in the derelict building, the smile of the stranger when I said hello.These were all categorised as positive at the end of the day. And the negative? Well, I was so focused on the positive, I was not really noticing the negative. I noted one thing down.
Yes: 5:1

As Shawn Anchor has suggested, we can train what we pay attention too. So, I kept telling myself, think like a photographer: learn to read the light.

I continued my nightly tally for a few days. Each evening, I noticed that the ordinariness of the day was being categorised as ‘positive’, and in doing so, I was actively appreciating just how many positive things are around me. Of course, I’ve heard the suggestions of ‘keep a gratitude journal’ before, but this really is the first time where I felt some of the science and brain chemistry behind it too.

So, what about all that worry I had? Well, it’s not that all the negativity goes away. It’s just that it is no longer the dominant narrative and therefore is not so overwhelming. After just five days of the practice, combined with some daily yoga and meditation, I realised that my thoughts felt a lot more spacious. I am seeking out more of the positive consistently again, I am thinking more clearly and I have more zest for the challenge at hand. When I notice the worry narrative creep back in, I am catching it more quickly and realising I need to train my attention to turn elsewhere, into something more productive, more positive.

So, always look on the bright side of life? We can take the Monty Python route and whistle, or we can also take Mary Oliver’s poetic route, and be photographically in awe of the ordinariness of everyday which surrounds us,

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Resilience then is not a switch we just turn on, it is a daily practice of noticing and being in tune with the everyday moments of comfort and beauty which surrounds us. And to help us we can always remember the magic numbers- 5:1.


Next week, I’ll share a little more about how the creative process has a roll to play in building resilience, with a little help from an ancient Roman philosopher.

Found this post useful? Please share.


From this post: 

Maureen Gaffney’s book Flourishing is full of wonderful resources and data to help us think differently about building our resilience.

Shawn Achor’s TED talk, ‘The Happy Secret to Work Better

Mary Oliver’s ‘Instructions for Living a Life’ is found in her poem ‘Sometimes’, in the ‘Red Bird’ Collection


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