Toughen up! Resilience is the key to happiness

Caroline McDevett
23 March 2018
Faculty of Arts


No-one can live a life without adversity, so it's important to learn how to bounce back when things don't go our way in sport, at work or in our personal lives, research shows.

We can't be happy all the time according to resilience researchers.

Are you happy?

Social researcher Hugh Mackay says we need to feel sadness, pain, loss and tedium to feel happy. Mackay, who holds an honorary doctorate and Master of Arts in Moral Philosophy from Macquarie, says we’re in the midst of an “obsession with the pursuit of happiness – we think we are all entitled to be happy, and there’s something wrong with us if we’re not.”

So if we can’t be happy all the time, how do we recover from a down period?

Macquarie Distinguished Professor and ARC Laureate Fellow Ron Rapee specialises in the prevention of anxiety and depression. “If people can deal with stressors in their lives and can bounce back quickly from stressors, they’ll be much more likely to be happy and happy for longer,” Professor Rapee says.

This ability to bounce back is called resilience.

“Resilience is not the same as happiness,” explains Rapee. “But it has a lot to do with it. No-one can live a life without adversity. Being able to return to your usual level of functioning as soon as possible is incredibly important to our quality of life.”

Scared of sadness

Mackay takes it a step further: “If we privilege happiness, we’re likely to become scared of sadness, and I think we’re in that situation now when people experience absolutely understandable down periods.”

He suggests striving for ‘wholeness’– “being able to absorb, interpret, understand and learn from whatever life throws at us by harnessing the appropriate emotions to deal with it. You could also describe that as resilience.”

Resilience, or lack of it, impacts more than the individual, says Rapee.

“Being able to manage emotions and stress can impact everything from family, social relationships and jobs to medical and physical issues. The financial costs are very high if we look at absenteeism, family breakdown and problems in the classroom.”

As the workplace becomes more competitive and globalisation increases stressors, the need for employees to be able to cope also increases.

Macquarie researcher Dr Monique Crane is working to rectify the ‘unhappy workplace’.

“As we expect more from people, we can’t neglect the psychological skills required by employees. It’s not just about learning a job role and its technical skills, but knowing how to deal with pressure, workloads and all the stressors that are now intertwined with the technical demands of a role.”

She cites three aspects to achieving workplace resilience: acknowledgment that it is the responsibility of both employees and the organisation, training to help employees cope with stressors, and preventing stressors, such as uncertainty, through executive change management.

Dangers of overpraising

“We need to acknowledge leadership behaviours, how they can support people’s resilience and how they can damage it,” says Crane.

While we don’t all develop resilience at the same rate, it is something most of us learn in childhood, says Rapee.

He developed the Cool Little Kids program, which teaches parents how to encourage anxious children to gradually and systematically face their fears and to challenge themselves. Parents also learn not to overprotect their children – allowing them to experience consequences and develop coping strategies.

Mackay says this doesn’t come easy in 2017 for young people who have grown up in the ‘praise culture’.

“They’ve always expected to be praised and indulged, rewarded and protected from failure or risk. There has to come a moment when you say: ‘I’ve been prepared for some other kind of life’.”

Rapee stresses praise is vital to a child’s development. “There’s a huge amount of evidence that giving kids praise when they’re doing something good gives them a real sense of control and being able to cope with the world. That doesn’t mean overly praising your child, but rather, selectively praising them when they have done something worthwhile – it’s this contingent praise that builds a sense of mastery.”

So how do we achieve real happiness by being able to cope with adversity?

Rapee and Mackay agree resilience is something we can all learn.

“Personality, genetics, the whole make-up is a large part of how resilient we’re likely to be,” says Rapee.

“But we can learn coping strategies. One example is problem solving, which allows people to look at ways around the problem and think up solutions. We can learn that – and how to do it better.

“A newer technique is coping flexibility – the ability to shift your coping strategy in response to different types of stressors.”


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