Maria Konnikova wrote a terrific article for The New Yorker last year, focusing on the research on resilience over the past few decades. Konnikova describes the research conducted by developmental psychologist Emmy Werner. Konnikova summarizes a key finding:
Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.
Then Konnikova turns to the research conducted by George Bonanno, a Columbia University psychologist. She writes:
One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.
Konnikova concludes by reporting that scholars believe that people can change the way that they frame events in their lives. They can be trained to reframe potentially traumatic events as positive ones. If that is true, then we can actually become more resilient. We are not destined to always act the way that we have acted in the face of potential adversity.