Q&A with Gail Wagnild, PhD

Q. You’ve dedicated decades of your life to studying resilience and helping people become more resilient. What made you so interested in resilience in the first place?

When I started to study resilience and aging in the early to mid-1980s, most researchers were still focusing on problems, deficits, and weaknesses and how to solve, reduce, and compensate for them. Then I read a 1985 article by the late researcher Elizabeth Colerick that focused on stamina in later life and I agreed with her observations that aging offers opportunities for limitless growth and learning. I decided that it would be fascinating, and even perhaps illuminating, to identify characteristics that lead to positive adaptation as we age. This line of inquiry led to some of the earliest research on resilience among adults that was being done at this time.

Q. How does your approach to resilience differ from those of other social scientists and researchers?

I believe in a holistic approach to understanding resilience. I do not focus, for instance, solely on psychology or biology to explain resilience. Instead, I focus on the whole person, integrating social, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects. With this approach in mind, I went directly to adults who had experienced difficulties and asked them to describe how they adapted and continued to live each day. I encouraged them to tell their stories with little interruption or guidance. From these interviews surfaced themes that I now consider to be vitally important to resilience and constitute its very core. I have learned these themes are essential to resilience for all people, regardless of age, health, income, and other conditions.

In contrast, much current resilience research is deductive. Investigators read about what a resilient person should look like and design surveys to measure these characteristics. This approach can result in a forced fit and is less likely to capture the rich and meaningful descriptions of resilience that come directly from resilient people.

Q. Why did you decide to write a book that made all your research and life experience accessible to the average person?

From the beginning, my career has been about ordinary resilient people. Their stories, insights, and wisdom lead the way in my book, as they have in my research. I’m passionate about letting people know they can learn to recognize, build, and strengthen their own inherent resilience. The self-assessments, exercises, and examples in my book will help many to practice daily the skills that will prepare them to respond with resilience whether they’re making a simple life choice or dealing with major adversity.

Q. What prevents most people from living resilient lives?

There is no simple answer to this question. But I can say this: when people are not living resiliently, it’s because their resilience core is not as strong as it could be. People whose resilience is weak and underdeveloped tend to live aimlessly and have few, if any, reasons to keep inching forward. They may be full of regrets and unable to experience hope and joy. Their responses to life events may be out of proportion to what actually happens to them. It’s difficult to live resiliently if you compromise your values repeatedly and live in a way that isn’t true to yourself.

Q. You write that resilience requires working with several personality characteristics and can be activated and refreshed through habits. If resilience itself isn’t a trait or a habit, what is it, exactly?

Resilience is a capacity that enables us to live with purpose, perseverance, self-reliance, equanimity, and authenticity. We are not always aware of our resilience but it is always there. Sometimes it doesn’t reveal itself until we’re in the midst of adversity, which is why most resilience research focuses on how people respond to stress. Often, that’s the clearest way to identify what resilience looks like. But we also express our resilience in smaller and less dramatic ways every day. In fact, we express our resilience, or lack of it, with each decision we make. That’s the way we can build our resilience, too, slowly and in almost indiscernible ways. When we take care to build our own resilience cores, we’re better prepared for the crises and major challenges that come our way. In my book, I emphasize the importance of practicing and building resilience as an overall life strategy.

Q. Is it possible to live a resilient life without having a clear sense of purpose?

No. Having a sense of purpose is essential to resilience. Whether your life is going well or you’re going through a difficult time, you need a reason to get up in the morning to keep you moving forward and focusing on what’s truly important to you. But don’t confuse having a sense of purpose with having one, single, driving purpose that excludes all else in our lives. Some people fret over not discovering that one exceptional thing they were born to do or be. Erroneously, they believe that if they could just uncover that one thing, their life would fall perfectly into place. More realistically, we each have multiple purposes, or even callings, that give our life rich meaning every day. These callings will change over time as we age and move from one life stage to another.

Q. What does resilience have to do with courage, strength, and meaning?

People who are resilient know what’s important. They rely on their beliefs and values to guide their choices. They realize what they can never compromise, no matter what. The path isn’t easy. Sometimes it requires going it alone, and that’s alright. As resilience grows, so do strength of purpose, courage of your convictions, and a realization that your life is unique and significant.

Q. You’ve said turmoil and trauma are not the opposites of resilience but places where resilience begins. How does that work?

Think of our resilience as a beautiful and precious pearl: It starts life as a foreign body inside an oyster. To defend itself against the irritant, the oyster secretes a crystalline coating over and over again until, at last, the foreign body is transformed into a smooth gem of beauty. Likewise, our resilience grows and develops when we face and overcome difficulties, whether they be relatively insignificant or catastrophic. Each time that we meet a challenge, our resilience becomes more strong and lustrous. Resilience may begin to grow undetected and only become visible over time. This is why we say that resilience begins during times of upheaval.

Q. What is one of the most memorable examples of resilience you’ve encountered in your life and work?

Two people stand out in my mind as being exceptionally resilient, though for different reasons. In his final illness, my dad, though suffering, was never less than courageous. Unwavering in his beliefs, he showed everyone around him how to live purposefully to the end.

My mom, now in her mid-nineties, has suffered several life-threatening illnesses and yet never succumbs to self-pity. She fights back with all her strength and courage, never gives an inch, and manages to continue taking care of the rest of us.

My parents’ resilience is only visible to those of us who know them well. Often, the resilient people we know don’t make the 11 o’clock news because of heroic deeds. They’re ordinary people who, despite their extraordinary resilience, go unobserved by most.

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