19 hacks for a more resilient life
Resilience is a word that’s increasingly talked about in 21st-century life, because it is a much-needed attribute for modern living. I’m sure you know stories of people who have burnt out. Perhaps you have lived through a collapse of some sort yourself and are more resilient as a result.
The word ‘resilient’ comes from the Latin for ‘rebound’. It refers to an ability to bounce back after adversity. It’s the opposite of brittle or fragile. As was often said in my family growing up, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
We love it when our heroes bounce back from difficulty to become stronger. It’s what every great adventure story is based on, is it not? The plot line goes like this:
Mr Average faces some great adversity (and an evil villain) and finds inner strength. An epic battle ensues in which Mr (more than) Average loses a loved one and nearly dies himself. He returns though, with his newfound special abilities which he uses for the common good.
That is how we want life to go. It makes a great page-turning story. But life is rarely Oscar-worthy.
When I was in my teens, my mum had a mental breakdown. Looking back, it’s clear she hadn’t been given a very resilient model of adulthood by her parents. Life was very tough and, in the 90s, mental illness was still stigmatised.
Last year I had a collapse of my own. I wrote about my experience of breakdown here. I am very much on the road to recovery and piecing parts of my life back together but with the realisation that I am different from before. It is a kind of grief.
My experience with mental illness has caused me to research resilience. I have read some books and observed the lives of those around me who demonstrate an ability to bounce back. Many of the values and skills I talk about in this article are ones I am developing in my own life.
I share them here because knowledge is power. Mental collapse is extremely painful, as any sufferer of bipolar or chronic depression will tell you. The stories of those who have survived are so valuable to us. We can learn and grow. We can bounce back ourselves, which is what resilience is all about.
So, here are 19 ways you can become more resilient and bounce back from whatever challenges you may face.
Know your purpose. Resilient people are able to say yes and no with equal conviction. They understand their own limits because they have clarified their purpose. Creating a vision statement for your life is one way to express purpose. Having a clear and stated purpose gives you a framework to work out whether a certain decision, action or commitment lines up or not. A resilient person is able to stick to a course. The circumstances may change but a resilient person’s focus on purpose will enable consistency. Work at getting your purpose statement to a single sentence.
- Own your values. If purpose is the ‘why’ of life, values are the ‘how’. In a culture of so much diversity, comparison can be a cause of great stress. A deep-seated respect for your personal values breeds acceptance of both others and yourself. Values tend to be a combination of our personal hardwiring and our worldview – and they may alter in different seasons of life. Where purpose is one statement (the best ones are simple and memorable), values can describe many of the ways we go about living. Is it important to you to be generous or frugal? To play music or sport? Do you expect to be hospitable or keep things simple? Is knowledge or friendship a value you hold close? Try penning a list of values and keeping it where you can see it. (You can access my list of values if you need inspiration.)
Have boundaries with toxic relationships. Deep-seated respect for self also breeds healthy relational boundaries. Learn to recognise the signs of a toxic relationship: anxiety, excessive hiding or avoiding, unhealthy control, repeating patterns of conflict, verbal abuse, stonewalling, manipulation, excessive lying, pathological behaviour, narcissism. Resilient people take steps to create healthy space from these sorts of relationships. In extreme cases, this means breaking all contact. Or it could mean ignoring some behaviour and clearly stating the terms on which the relationship must happen.
Review your priorities. We all know that new year’s resolutions would be more effective if they were reviewed and adjusted periodically. The same is true for our priorities. Having clear values and a life vision is only useful if they remain present in our minds, shaping our decisions. Things change. In fact, change is perhaps the only certainty in life.
5. Invest in intimate relationships. The Harvard study into happiness – the longest piece of such research to date – concluded that connection was the single most important contributing factor to a person’s happiness. The quality of our intimate relationships are so important for our resilience. Investing time fostering healthy connection with our spouses, children, siblings or parents is a smart investment resilient people make. I make time for one-to-one connection with my husband and each of our three children. Sometimes I need to say no to other things to protect that time. I have also been on parenting and marriage courses to help me become more skilled at developing those connections. These costly investments are part of the long-term thinking that marks out so many resilient people.
6. Live with the end in mind. If you want to be able to choose which battles to fight and which to walk away from, live your life with the end in mind. Although a bit morbid, when coaching a client I often discuss the end of their life. We think about what they would like to leave behind when they die. Much like strategic financial planning for the end of life, there are insights to be gained from living with the end in mind. What really matters to you when all is said and done? What will you regret? What will you be proud of? What legacy will you give to others? Simple statements work best here: I want my family to be happy and well cared for. I want to grow my business to a place where I can hand it on. I want to travel and see the world. I want to grow old with my partner. I want to retire from a career I am proud of. I want my kids to be self-sufficient. These deeply held desires provide a fire hose of energy and perseverance. We need to connect these desires with our present. Keeping the end in mind, how will I live differently this week?
7. Discover your bliss. The writer Joseph Campbell once said, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” I am sure you have observed, as I have, that people ‘in their element’ have an ease and energy to their activity. They seem to barely notice opposition, treat obstacles as opportunities and have the kind of momentum we would all love to possess. They seem unstoppable. Although they can switch their mindset to ‘just get the job done’, they never stay there for long. Discovering your ‘bliss’ and then aligning your life to channel it can take decades. However, the journey is worth it if you can experience the effortless grace that comes from finding yourself in the centre of your passions and strengths.
8. Practise rest. It’s important to be able to switch off from all forms of work. The oxymoron of stopping to achieve more is one we are familiar with. The practice of rest is key to having a resilient approach to life. Try switching off devices in the evening. Make the weekends about fun and relaxing. Take a proper break at different points in the year. Have a joy mentor. These frivolities are the serious business of rest.
9. Enjoy. This seems like joy would be the outcome of living well, but I believe it is actually one of the inputs of a resilient life. If joy is to be a consistent experience in your life, you need both a joyful attitude and the discipline to practise it and do things you love for the sake of enjoyment. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” as the English proverb goes. Jack isn’t just dull, he is also more susceptible to despondency and melancholy. His chances of burnout or stress-related illnesses are increased and the his relationships are suffering. It is also possible to be surprised by joy as you go about your daily life. Habitually appreciating small pleasures results in a more joyful perspective, which will in turn help you pick out the optimistic, hopeful and pleasurable moments of life more easily.
10. Celebrate. Celebration is closely connected to the habits and perspective that bring about joy. I once had a meeting with my mentor the day before my birthday. When she discovered that I had no plans to celebrate it, she remarked, “Leaders always celebrate their birthdays.” I have come to see the counterintuitive wisdom in stopping to attend to celebration. To mark in some significant way the passing of time, the seasons and personal achievements. The most forward-thinking organisations I know even make a point of finding something to celebrate in failure.
11. Eat the whole meal. As any parent would encourage their child not to leave their greens, so resilient people choose not to avoid pain. But neither do they wallow in it. Resilient people develop a healthy relationship with pain as part of life. They eat the whole meal and don’t pick out the bits they don’t like. Pain has much to teach us, if we are prepared to listen. The American author Richard Rohr wrote, “Once we reach the age of 30, success has nothing to teach us... The only thing that can teach us, that can get through to us and profoundly change us, is suffering, failure, loss and wounds.” Going through pain and failure is a rite of passage for the resilient soul. When life doesn’t work out as expected or loss hits us, we can learn much about ourselves. As long as the pain doesn’t overwhelm us and we have time to work through the stages of grief, those times can be the most rewarding in the long run.
12. Take care of the small. As the Chinese proverb puts it, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Having the dual focus of the big and the small is a hallmark of resilient people. They understand their purpose so know that they must shoot for the moon if they are to reach the stars. But the journey of life is many small steps and a resilient person knows she must not neglect the small steps if she is to reach the big goal.
13. Have a foundation of integrity. A building that lacks integrity will fall. A life that lacks integrity is likely to be compromised. We all know that secret affairs or hidden addictions are devastating in the end. But a resilient person’s commitment to integrity starts at the small things too. Ruthless honesty in close relationships. A culture of honesty in work life and family life. My husband and I made a deal in the early days of marriage that we would 'shop' ourselves to the other if we had any thoughts of attraction towards another person. Although it’s awkward to tell your other half about a ‘naughty’ dream you had or some lustful thoughts, for us, it has meant that trust has not become eroded. We have really needed that trust in our marriage when the relationship has been tough. Squeaky clean integrity pays in the end.
14. Surround yourself with greatness. Many business gurus advocate hiring ‘stars’ when recruiting. The same principle applies to the life of resilience. Don’t allow your ego to be the lid on who you will surround yourself with. Having friends who are super talented or well connected can be unnerving. Our egos can be challenged by colleagues who outshine us. But the you become like those who you spend the most time with – so choose good people. Choose those who inspire you and are resilient themselves.
15. Show up for life. As Woody Allen so famously said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” Consistency is the basis of trust, and consistently showing up for your responsibilities and key relationships cannot be underestimated. Knowing you can be relied upon will enable high levels of trust in those around you. If you know you are not going to be able to show up for something or someone, let them know with a simple 'sorry’ and the value of trust will stay high.
16. Be the kind of wife/husband you want your son/daughter to marry. This one applies only to parents. It has often been shown by psychologists that we marry people who are like our opposite parent. Although I hate the idea that I may have married someone like my dad, when you look at the hard facts in my life, the theory rings true. When I make investments in the quality of my marriage, I am raising the standard for my son who is looking on at this most important relationship. When (on a good day) I am the kind of wife I can be proud of (and just to be clear, a ‘good little wife’ is not what I mean – we are all fierce feminists in our household), I send a clear message to my son about the kind of woman he should choose. I see a rich and enjoyable marriage as the greatest gift I can give my children.
17. Love your body. It has often been said that your body is a temple. It houses your life force. Looking after your physical form is paramount for a long and healthy life. That sounds simple. But sustaining the value of physical health over a lifetime is much more complex. It seems to be more of an art than a science. Inner motivations, bodily rhythms, tastes and lifestyle are all subtle factors that influence health. There are those for whom exercise is a pleasure and lots of time for sport is part of their optimum pattern. But for those who are not built for constant activity, finding gentle but effective exercise needs to be the goal. Getting educated about health, your body and what a healthy lifestyle involves is a great first move. Talk to nutritionists and fitness experts for the inside track to useful information. Build health into your monthly and yearly planning. Have it as a high value and enjoy being good to your body.
18. Laugh more. Laughter is a good medicine – science now proves that it is genuinely good for you. So how can you laugh more? Well, give yourself more opportunities to laugh: funny videos, friends with a great sense of humour, children and pets all bring on more laughter. But there is also an attitude towards life that promotes un-seriousness. Deciding to take yourself less seriously (along with the practice of gratitude) can psychologically help. People with a light-hearted approach to life are easier to be around and score better in psychological tests. Develop this light-hearted attitude and you will naturally become more resilient.
19. Follow the path of curiosity. For Winston Churchill, his interests were the ideal way for him to work through some of the most difficult political problems he was faced with during a long and distinguished career. He found solace, joy and peace in his practice of painting, reading and gardening, and his love of horses. The development of healthy curiosity about life and specific interests or hobbies is key to increasing your resilience. To quote Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, “Do whatever brings you to life. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them.” To her, curiosity is the antithesis of fear.
My life journey has enabled me to see some of the consequences of a brittle mentality. Both acute (severe and short) and chronic (persistent) mental stress can cause a breakdown of mental function. In myself, and other close family members, mental illness has been as a result of choices and circumstances that have not encouraged healthy growth. These factors are complex and there are no easy solutions.
However, one thing is true. A person who invests in their own wellbeing is making a wise choice. Paying attention to your own mental and emotional life gives you the opportunity for growth and change. Many of the voices in modern wellness practices are calling for us to invest in our own wellbeing. It is the path to resilience. Perhaps our own resilience is a gift we give to future generations. I, for one, hope we can hand our children a robust mentality that easily adapts to the demands of 21st-century life.