The science of bouncing back
While waiting backstage at a speaking engagement in Australia a few years ago, Michael Ungar of Dalhousie’s School of Social Work listened to the speaker before him and was shocked by what he heard. “The speaker told the audience, ‘All you have to do to change your life is to is change your brain, to think differently. If you do that, everything in your life will change,’” Dr. Ungar says. “It just wasn’t true. The person who relies on themself only succeeds if they have very few challenges. When the odds are stacked against us, the people who do best are those with the most supports.”
The statements put forward so confidently by the speaker in Australia stayed with Dr. Ungar, all the way back to Canada. That incident—and decades of his own research in the field of resilience—were the catalyst for his latest book, Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. In it, he takes a fresh look at the concept of ‘self-help,’ the reasons why it often fails and the research behind what really works. “The book was sparked by the science,” he says. “The idea that if you just think differently you can rewire your brain and change your whole life didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to challenge those ideas.”
The Australian presenter’s views were not unique. They echo a larger narrative on what it takes to be happy: that individuals can and should just ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to overcome hardships and achieve success. Dr. Ungar, a family therapist, social work professor in Dal’s Faculty of Health and one of the top researchers on resilience in the world, knew differently. It’s the emphasis on the ‘self’ in ‘self-help’ that’s the problem with the bootstraps theory.
Certainly, a positive attitude is important, he notes—in fact, his research shows that positive thinking is one the 12 resources resilient people tap into. But things like determination and grit are not enough to create lasting, positive changes in people’s lives. “There’s much more to the story than that.” He offers a simple question to underscore the point: “We’ve never had more access to self-help manuals, podcasts, books, TV shows and so on. If self-help really works, why is it that nearly all of the statistics show that our physical and mental health and well-being in North America is getting worse? The self-help industry says that if we’re not making positive changes in our lives, it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Whether we succeed or fail is completely on our shoulders as individuals.” And the worst examples of this individualistic approach, according to Dr. Ungar, “blame people for their failures when there can be several other factors at play.”
The science behind resilience
Dr. Ungar knew from decades of research that those who thrive do so largely because of their environment and the resources they have been able to access. “What’s clear from the studies is that most of what changes us are things like good social policies, workplace safety, the relationships we’re in, having safety and security in terms of where we live, good employment and training opportunities, finding a place within your community,” he says, countering the idea of the rugged individual who succeeds due mainly to personal drive and determination. “We know that ‘resourced’ individuals tend to do far better than ‘rugged’ individuals.”
“We know that ‘resourced’ individuals tend to do far better than ‘rugged’ individuals.”
The perspective may come as relief to anyone who’s tried and failed to change their careers, health, attitude or appearance by consuming the latest self-help podcast or book. It turns out that personal traits like grit and perseverance can only take you so far—to succeed and overcome obstacles, you need far more than that. “The environment around us and the resources we’ve been given play a huge role in whether or not we’re successful. Grit and individual motivation is one thing, but it’s not usually enough to create change. You need an environment that makes it possible for you to change and grow.”
He also takes issue with the idea that ‘You can do whatever you want, if you just put your mind to it.’ Think of the person who writes and fails the medical school entrance exams several times, refusing to give up, he says. “Would that person be happier and better served pursuing another degree in the health field? Maybe there’s a different, better path for them to gain career fulfillment and serve their community. Everyone isn’t meant to be a doctor, and that’s OK.”
What really works
While working as a family therapist, Dr. Ungar often met children who went through incredible hardship but seemed to be doing better than anyone would expect. It was something that corresponded with his own life experience. “I was emancipated quite young. I was 16 when I left home and was on my own from that point,” Dr. Ungar says. “While I was a family clinician and working on my PhD, I began to ask myself ‘How was I able to pull that off? How is it that some kids do better than expected even though they’ve gone through these hardships?’”
It’s the emphasis on the ‘self’ in ‘self-help’ that’s the problem with the bootstraps theory.
In his case, teenaged Michael Ungar was able to get through that difficult time through a combination of employment and academic opportunities and also because of the influence of positive adults in his life. “I was able to find work, and I had access to some academic opportunities because my grades were good,” he says. “Also, I had a really great teacher at the time, and my grandmother was also another good support—she was a buffer in terms of conflict that was going on at the time within the family.”
Dr. Ungar went on to explore his questions about how some children thrive despite difficulty in decades of internationally recognized research in the field of resilience. His studies have focused on the resilience of children and families involved with child welfare and mental health services, refugee and immigrant youth populations and communities. He is the author of 15 books, has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the subject, and has conducted over 500 presentations around the world. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience and leads the Resilience Research Centre (RRC) at Dalhousie. He created the centre to facilitate funded research projects on resilience, focusing on marginalized children and families and adult populations experiencing mental health challenges all over the world. Through international partnerships with researchers, policy makers and clinicians, the centre has built a world-renowned hub of resilience expertise and tools to support young people, families and communities in achieving psychological, social, cultural and physical well-being. Before the RRC was established, there was little research being done on the topic of resilience. In part through the centre’s work, resilience has become a critical topic of discussion across the health and social sciences fields, and Dr. Ungar’s research is shedding new light on the science of how people overcome obstacles and thrive.
Instead of looking at resilience as being something personal, Dr. Ungar’s work with youth through the Resilience Research Centre took a different approach. He looked at the external factors that influenced a young person’s outcomes—whether or not they had resources throughout multiple systems. He found that the economy, politics, social services, families, peer groups and schools are all elements of the social ecologies that can help people, a theme echoed in his latest book.
“When the odds are stacked against us, the people who do best are those with the most supports.”
His definition of resilience encompasses this shift from an individual concept to a more social-ecological framework: “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.”
In his research, Dr. Ungar has shifted focus away from individual qualities to the coping strategies we use when facing adversity. An example from the book details a large-scale, international research program. The five-country, six-year study examined how 13- to 24-year-olds with complex needs living in stressed environments (economically depressed neighbourhoods, for instance, or homes with family violence) made use of the health and social services available to them, and whether that connected to their resilience over time. “Rather than focusing our attention on individual factors like grit or mindset, we wanted to understand whether an investment in services could be a better way to nurture well-being in suboptimal environments,” he says in the book, noting that remarkably few studies had asked the obvious question: “Does resilience depend on the services we receive?”
The results, based on research on 7,000 young people around the world, produced undeniable proof that “resilience depends more on what we receive than what we have.” The study also showed that young people often do not take advantage of services offered in their communities, because the services are not tailored to or appropriate in meeting their needs (i.e., school meetings set up with parents who are unable to take time off from work).
What we need to survive—and thrive
Dr. Ungar is not suggesting we stop trying to make positive changes in our lives, or simply accept difficult life circumstances. His point is that personal motivation and the will to succeed is simply not enough. “Think about families who have gone through some kind of natural disaster, and have had to relocate,” he says. “You can’t tell a bunch of families impacted by a huge environmental tragedy to think their way out of their situation. They need support, insurance money, other people to help them relocate, for example.”
Dr. Ungar says the good news is that we really can change our world, and in fact, it’s often easier to do that than to change ourselves. “The science is clear—most of the research on resilience points to external factors and opportunities that spark change, not some kind of internal fortitude. It’s about altering the world around you and making it more supportive of you—the external interactions cue the change,” he says. “If you’re disillusioned that the diets, the weekend retreats and makeovers aren’t working, there’s a reason for that. You’ve been burdened by the responsibility of making these changes all on your own. Just know you’re on the right path, but maybe there is another set of strategies that can help you.”
These strategies involve thinking outside the box — if someone has a job that they hate, for instance, it might not be possible for them to quit and find another job but there are other ways to approach the situation. “If someone is highly stressed in the workplace, they could ask their employer for a horizontal move or a slightly different set of tasks, or maybe ask for some extra support from their family. If finances are the stressor, some find that cutting up the credit cards, destroying the opportunity to use them works to decrease the problem. A diet or fitness plan is more likely to work if you find a diet or exercise buddy,” he says. “If your life or your job lacks meaning, motivation and positive thinking are very good things, but so are volunteering in the community or joining a sports activity that you love. Any of these examples can create a huge shift in the quality of your life and your well-being.”