Human resilience is frequently described like a rubber band—its capacity to return to its original form after being stretched is akin to our own ability to bounce back after a challenging life event. While this analogy focuses on the capacity to bounce back, it is also important to understand resilience in terms of initial flexibility.
“Corey Keyes, a professor of psychology at Emory University, posited that in order to understand mental health disorders, there is a need to study both our challenges and our wellbeing,” says Alan D. Schlechter, MD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone and member of its Child Study Center. “Dr. Keyes found that high levels of stress do not necessarily result in low levels of wellbeing, and in fact a substantial percentage of human beings enjoy high levels of wellness despite stressful conditions.”
When people report simultaneous experiences of high levels of stress and high levels of wellbeing, it is the latter that offers significant protection from the most negative aspects of our challenges. “This stressful period during the 2019 coronavirus disease pandemic is stretching our wellbeing in order to help us bounce back and, in doing so, growing our resilience, as well as that of our children,” Dr. Schlechter says.
The Concept of PERMA
Together with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s WonderLab, Dr. Schlechter presents the benefits of a concept developed at the University of Pennsylvania called PERMA—short for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment—and how parents can use it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People often consider the terms happiness and positive emotions as interchangeable, but among the nearly 20 topics that are studied alongside happiness are calm, pride, interest, confidence, amusement, and inspiration, and each cause an individual to respond differently in the face of stress,” Dr. Schlechter says. For example, hope has a strong correlation with effort and self-regulation; enjoyment is highly correlated with interest and determination; and happiness has been shown to improve our memory, accuracy, collaborative problem-solving, and creativity. “Calm and tranquility have been shown to have the greatest effect on our immune system,” Dr. Schlechter says. “Overall, positive emotions enhance our ability to thrive.”
Engagement exists when you are deeply involved in an activity or absorbed by an experience—your deepest character traits are accentuated by your involvement. “This process leads you to be invigorated and enhances your wellbeing significantly,” Dr. Schlechter says. “Have you heard of being ‘in the zone’? The character traits when you are fully engaged include qualities like gratitude, citizenship, or wisdom.”
You can have all the accomplishment you want, but if you can’t share it with someone else, it loses a lot of its luster, Dr. Schlechter says. “There is no higher correlation with wellbeing than the quality of our relationships; whether it is the good moments or getting over the bad, having someone’s hand to hold or someone to speak with—even if it’s over a phone—will predict your relative success.”
“This is what matters to you, what makes sense to you, and is often the springboard for your purpose in life,” Dr. Schlechter says. It is often found in people who give of themselves. “Meaning acts as a life jacket during difficult moments—even pandemics,” Dr. Schlechter adds. “Caring for the people around us, participating in the activities that matter most, can keep a person afloat.”
This isn’t just the big “A” accomplishments, like graduating from school or winning an important race. “Right now a little ‘a’ may be helping us through the day—did I get my kids to engage in something, did I provide a decent meal, did I push myself to exercise?” Dr. Schlechter says.
Using PERMA During COVID-19
There are so many different challenges in front of us, it may be hard to know where to start. “But PERMA gives us a unique roadmap for ourselves and our kids. You need a drop in every bucket to truly flourish,” Dr. Schlechter says. “This may be particularly hard when the activities that engage you are not available, friends are dealing with their own crisis, meaningful work has been paused, and the limitations in activity make it hard to go to sleep.”
Instead, it can be helpful to find resilience in the micromoments of our wellbeing. “I may not be enjoying the sunny day in the park, but I can open my window and enjoy the sun,” Dr. Schlechter says. “The circumstances of a pandemic practically push us into doing almost everything in new and novel ways—and use our strengths.”
Whatever you are doing to boost your wellbeing, share it with someone every day, Dr. Schlechter says. “We need to have extraordinary discipline in these moments regarding every aspect of our PERMA, including taking time to have some emotional disclosure,” he says. “Feeling understood by others is helpful, and when we allow others to feel known by us, this too is meaningful. If your ‘meaning’ bucket is empty right now, just connecting with someone else may be your good deed of the day. It may be cleaning your home, reading a book, or writing in a journal—do something that matters to you on a daily basis. We all need to stay afloat right now.”
During this time, Dr. Schlechter says, our instinct may be to quickly get rid of the hardship, the stress, and the fear being spread by COVID-19. “There is truth in that, but just trying to get rid of these may not be the best way to cope over the next couple of months,” Dr. Schlechter says.
Much of our resilience may have come from our occupation, sports, hobbies, or spending time with friends and family—all of which are restricted at the moment. “Instead, we are accumulating small moments of engagement, micro ones, for ourselves and our children,” Dr. Schlechter says. “The goal is to have a drop in each bucket of PERMA, and at the moment we may only have access to small droplets, or smaller buckets. Importantly, though, even small moments of wellbeing bolster our resilience to manage and deal with this challenge.”