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← 3 secrets of resilient people

Everyone experiences loss, but how do you cope with the tough moments that follow? Resilience researcher Lucy Hone shares three hard-won strategies for developing the capacity to brave adversity, overcome struggle and face whatever may come head-on with fortitude and grace.

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Showing Revision 6 created 06/15/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. So I'd like to start, if I may,
    by asking you some questions.
  2. If you've ever lost someone
    you truly love,
  3. ever had your heart broken,
  4. ever struggled through
    an acrimonious divorce,
  5. or been the victim of infidelity,
  6. please stand up.
  7. If standing up isn't accessible to you,
    you can put your hand up.
  8. Please, stay standing,
  9. and keep your hand up there.
  10. If you've ever lived
    through a natural disaster,
  11. been bullied or been made redundant,
  12. stand on up.
  13. If you've ever had a miscarriage,
  14. if you've ever had an abortion
  15. or struggled through infertility,
  16. please stand up.
  17. Finally, if you, or anyone you love,
  18. has had to cope
    with mental illness, dementia,
  19. some form of physical impairment,
  20. or cope with suicide,
  21. please stand up.
  22. Look around you.
  23. Adversity doesn't discriminate.
  24. If you are alive,
  25. you are going to have to,
    or you've already had to,
  26. deal with some tough times.
  27. Thank you, everyone, take a seat.
  28. I started studying
    resilience research a decade ago,

  29. at the University
    of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
  30. It was an amazing time to be there,
  31. because the professors who trained me
  32. had just picked up the contract
    to train all 1.1 million American soldiers
  33. to be as mentally fit
    as they always have been physically fit.
  34. As you can imagine,
  35. you don't get a much more skeptical
    discerning audience
  36. than the American drill sergeants
    returning from Afganistan.
  37. So for someone like me,
  38. whose main quest in life
    is trying to work out
  39. how we take the best
    of scientific findings out of academia
  40. and bring them to people
    in their everyday lives,
  41. it was a pretty inspiring place to be.
  42. I finished my studies in America,

  43. and I returned home here to Christchurch
  44. to start my doctoral research.
  45. I'd just begun that study
  46. when the Christchurch earthquakes hit.
  47. So I put my research on hold,
  48. and I started working
    with my home community
  49. to help them through that terrible
    post-quake period.
  50. I worked with all sorts of organizations
  51. from government departments
    to building companies,
  52. and all sorts of community groups,
  53. teaching them the ways
    of thinking and acting
  54. that we know boost resilience.
  55. I thought that was my calling.
  56. My moment to put all
    of that research to good use.
  57. But sadly, I was wrong.
  58. For my own true test came in 2014

  59. on Queen's Birthday weekend.
  60. We and two other families had decided
  61. to go down to Lake Ohau
    and bike the outs to ocean.
  62. At the last minute,
  63. my beautiful 12-year-old daughter Abi
  64. decided to hop in the car
    with her best friend, Ella, also 12,
  65. and Ella's mom, Sally,
    a dear, dear friend of mine.
  66. On the way down,
    as they traveled through Rakaia
  67. on Thompsons Track,
  68. a car sped through a stop sign,
  69. crashing into them
  70. and killing all three of them instantly.
  71. In the blink of an eye,

  72. I find myself flung
    to the other side of the equation,
  73. waking up with a whole new identity.
  74. Instead of being the resilience expert,
  75. suddenly, I'm the grieving mother.
  76. Waking up not knowing who I am,
  77. trying to wrap my head
    around unthinkable news,
  78. my world smashed to smithereens.
  79. Suddenly, I'm the one on the end
    of all this expert advice.
  80. And I can tell you,
  81. I didn't like what I heard one little bit.
  82. In the days after Abi died,

  83. we were told we were now
    prime candidates for family estrangement.
  84. That we were likely to get divorced
  85. and we were at high risk
    of mental illness.
  86. "Wow," I remember thinking,
  87. "Thanks for that, I though
    my life was already pretty shit."
  88. (Laughter)

  89. Leaflets described
    the five stages of grief:

  90. anger, bargaining, denial,
    depression, acceptance.
  91. Victim support arrived at our door
  92. and told us that we could expect
    to write off the next five years to grief.
  93. I know the leaflets
    and the resources meant well.
  94. But in all of that advice,
  95. they left us feeling like victims.
  96. Totally overwhelmed by the journey ahead,
  97. and powerless to exert any influence
    over our grieving whatsoever.
  98. I didn't need to be told
    how bad things were.
  99. Believe me, I already knew
    things were truly terrible.
  100. What I needed most was hope.
  101. I needed a journey
    through all that anguish,
  102. pain and longing.
  103. Most of all,
  104. I wanted to be an active participant
    in my grief process.
  105. So I decided to turn my back
    on their advice

  106. and decided instead to conduct
    something of a self-experiment.
  107. I'd done the research, I had the tools,
  108. I wanted to know how useful
    they would be to me now
  109. in the face of such an enormous
    mountain to climb.
  110. Now, I have to confess at this point,
  111. I didn't really know
    that any of this was going to work.
  112. Parental bereavement
    is widely acknowledged
  113. as the hardest of losses to bear.
  114. But I can tell you now, five years on,
  115. what I already knew from the research.
  116. That you can rise up from adversity,
  117. that there are strategies that work,
  118. that it is utterly possible
  119. to make yourself think
    and act in certain ways
  120. that help you navigate tough times.
  121. There is a monumental body of research
    on how to do this stuff.

  122. Today, I'm just going to share
    with you three strategies.
  123. These are my go-to strategies
    that I relied upon
  124. and saved me in my darkest days.
  125. They're three strategies
    that underpin all of my work,
  126. and they're pretty readily
    available to us all,
  127. anyone can learn them,
  128. you can learn them right here today.
  129. So number one,

  130. resilient people get that shit happens.
  131. They know that suffering is part of life.
  132. This doesn't mean
    they actually welcome it in,
  133. they're not actually delusional.
  134. Just that when the tough times come,
  135. they seem to know
  136. that suffering is part
    of every human existence.
  137. And knowing this stops you
    from feeling discriminated against
  138. when the tough times come.
  139. Never once did I find myself thinking,
  140. "Why me?"
  141. In fact, I remember thinking,
  142. "Why not me?
  143. Terrible things happen to you,
  144. just like they do everybody else.
  145. That's your life now,
  146. time to sink or swim."
  147. The real tragedy
  148. is that not enough of us
    seem to know this any longer.
  149. We seem to live in an age
  150. where we're entitled to a perfect life,
  151. where shiny, happy photos
    on Instagram are the norm,
  152. when actually,
  153. as you all demonstrated
    at the start of my talk,
  154. the very opposite is true.
  155. Number two,

  156. resilient people
  157. are really good at choosing carefully
    where they select their attention.
  158. They have a habit of realistically
    appraising situations,
  159. and typically, managing to focus
    on the things that they can change,
  160. and somehow accept
    the things that they can't.
  161. This is a vital, learnable
    skill for resilience.
  162. As humans, we are really good
  163. at noticing threats and weaknesses.
  164. We are hardwired for that negative.
  165. We're really, really good
    at noticing them.
  166. Negative emotions stick to us like Velcro,
  167. whereas positive emotions and experiences
    seems to bounce off like Teflon.
  168. Being wired in this way
    is actually really good for us,

  169. and served us well
    from an evolutionary perspective.
  170. So imagine for a moment I'm a cavewoman,
  171. and I'm coming out
    of my cave in the morning,
  172. and there's a saber-toothed
    tiger on one side
  173. and a beautiful rainbow on the other.
  174. It kind of pays for my survival
    for me to notice this tiger.
  175. The problem is,
  176. we now live in an era
    where we are constantly bombarded
  177. by threats all day long,
  178. and our poor brains treat
    every single one of those threats
  179. as though they were a tiger.
  180. Our threat focus, our stress response,
  181. is permanently dialed up.
  182. Resilient people
    don't diminish the negative,
  183. but they also have worked out a way
  184. of tuning into the good.
  185. One day, when doubts
    were threatening to overwhelm me,

  186. I distinctly remember thinking,
  187. "No, you do not get
    to get swallowed up by this.
  188. You have to survive.
  189. You've got so much to live for.
  190. Choose life, not death.
  191. Don't lose what you have
  192. to what you have lost."
  193. In psychology,
    we call this benefit finding.
  194. In my brave new world,
  195. it involved trying to find things
    to be grateful for.
  196. At least our wee girl
  197. hadn't died of some terrible,
    long, drawn-out illness.
  198. She died suddenly, instantly,
  199. sparing us and her that pain.
  200. We had a huge amount of social support
    from family and friends
  201. to help us through.
  202. And most of all,
  203. we still had two beautiful
    boys to live for,
  204. who needed us now,
  205. and deserved to have as normal a life
    as we could possibly give them.
  206. Being able to switch the focus
    of your attention
  207. to also include the good
  208. has been shown by science
    to be a really powerful strategy.
  209. So in 2005, Martin Seligman and colleagues
    conducted an experiment.

  210. And they asked people,
    all they asked people to do,
  211. was think of three good things
    that had happened to them each day.
  212. What they found, over the six months
    course of this study,
  213. was that those people
    showed higher levels of gratitude,
  214. higher levels of happiness
  215. and less depression
    over the course of the six-month study.
  216. When you're going through grief,
  217. you might need a reminder,
  218. or you might need permission
    to feel grateful.
  219. In our kitchen, we've got
    a bright pink neon poster
  220. that reminds us to "accept" the good.
  221. In the American army,
  222. they framed it a little bit differently.
  223. They talked to the army
    about hunting the good stuff.
  224. Find the language that works for you,
  225. but whatever you do,
  226. make an intentional,
    deliberate, ongoing effort
  227. to tune into what's good in your world.
  228. Number three,

  229. resilient people ask themselves,
  230. "Is what I'm doing helping or harming me?"
  231. This is a question that's used
    a lot in good therapy.
  232. And boy, is it powerful.
  233. This was my go-to question
  234. in the days after the girls died.
  235. I would ask it again and again.
  236. "Should I go to the trial
    and see the driver?
  237. Would that help me or would it harm me?"
  238. Well, that was a no-brainer for me,
  239. I chose to stay away.
  240. But Trevor, my husband,
    decided to meet with the driver
  241. at a later time.
  242. Late at night, I'd find myself sometimes
    poring over old photos of Abi,
  243. getting more and more upset.
  244. I'd ask myself,
  245. "Really? Is this helping you
    or is it harming you?
  246. Put away the photos,
  247. go to bed for the night,
  248. be kind to yourself."
  249. This question can be applied
    to so many different contexts.

  250. Is the way I'm thinking and acting
    helping or harming you,
  251. in your bid to get that promotion,
  252. to pass that exam,
  253. to recover from a heart attack?
  254. So many different ways.
  255. I write a lot about resilience,
  256. and over the years, this one strategy
  257. has prompted more positive
    feedback than any other.
  258. I get scores of letters
    and emails and things
  259. from all over the place of people saying
  260. what a huge impact
    it's had on their lives.
  261. Whether it is forgiving family
    ancient transgressions, arguments
  262. from Christmases past,
  263. or whether it is just
    trolling through social media,
  264. whether it is asking yourself
  265. whether you really need
    that extra glass of wine.
  266. Asking yourself whether what you're doing,
    the way you're thinking,
  267. the way you're acting
  268. is helping or harming you,
  269. puts you back in the driver's seat.
  270. It gives you some control
    over your decision-making.
  271. Three strategies.

  272. Pretty simple.
  273. They're readily available to us all,
  274. anytime, anywhere.
  275. They don't require rocket science.
  276. Resilience isn't some fixed trait.
  277. It's not elusive,
  278. that some people have
    and some people don't.
  279. It actually requires
    very ordinary processes.
  280. Just the willingness to give them a go.
  281. I think we all have moments in life

  282. where our life path splits
  283. and the journey we thought
    we were going down
  284. veers off to some terrible direction
  285. that we never anticipated,
  286. and we certainly didn't want.
  287. It happened to me.
  288. It was awful beyond imagining.
  289. If you ever find yourselves
    in a situation where you think
  290. "There's no way
    I'm coming back from this,"
  291. I urge you to lean into these strategies
  292. and think again.
  293. I won't pretend
  294. that thinking this way is easy.
  295. And it doesn't remove all the pain.
  296. But if I've learned anything
    over the last five years,
  297. it is that thinking this way
    really does help.
  298. More than anything,
  299. it has shown me that it is possible
  300. to live and grieve at the same time.
  301. And for that, I would be always grateful.
  302. Thank you.

  303. (Applause)