How To Be More Resilient: 6 Steps To Success When Life Gets Hard


Sometimes life doesn’t just hand you lemons — it pelts you with them like you’re in a citrus fruit dodgeball game. Yeah, we’re talking about when you have to deal with grief, like the death of a loved one or other serious tragedies.

You’re left with this bizarre, jagged-edged picture that sort of resembles your life, but not really. It’s a process that’s as confusing as trying to read a book where every other page is from a different novel. You cry so hard you dehydrate yourself. You feel your own inner light dimming, like a smartphone screen at 5% battery.

And when it comes to grief, we get a lot of unscientific advice. For instance, people always mention the Kübler-Ross model – you know, the five stages of grief? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Unfortunately, there’s no good evidence the Kübler-Ross model is accurate.

When life gets really hard we need real answers. So who has them?

George Bonanno is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University. His book is “The Other Side of Sadness.”

Let’s get to it…


Resilience Is The Default

Forget the idea that grief is a one-size-fits-all Snuggie of sadness. The truth is, grief is weird. It’s a personal mixtape of hits and misses, highs and lows, and nobody’s playlist is quite the same. You might have a day that’s all Adele songs, followed by a day that’s pure “Benny Hill” theme. The research shows that, unlike the Kübler-Ross model, grief varies for each person.

But I have good news. Very good news. The most common response to grief? It’s resilience. These days we worry that every bad thing results in permanent trauma but, truth is, most people get better on their own with no professional help.

The human brain, it seems, is less like a delicate flower and more like one of those unkillable houseplants. You forget to water it, leave it in a dark room, and still, it refuses to die. It’s stubborn like that. Resilience isn’t some heroic feat; it’s more like your brain’s default setting.

Some people are going to resist this notion. Well, let’s raise the stakes – let’s look at some of the worst tragedies you can imagine. What happened in London during World War 2 when the British were under relentless Nazi bombardment? “There were remarkably few cases of psychological disturbance and even fewer incidents of psychiatric disorders or requests for treatment for psychological problems in medical clinics… In the end, the official reports on the civilian reaction to the bombing simply emphasized the unexpected resilience that had been witnessed.”

Aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Same as above.

What about people who were in Manhattan during 9-11? A large scale survey six weeks after the tragedy confirmed only a small percentage of people met the standard for having PTSD. The incidence of trauma was low. And then what happened? It got even lower. A follow up study six months after the attack showed PTSD levels were close to nonexistent.

For pretty much every terrible, awful thing you can imagine the most common trajectory is resilience. Spinal cord injury? Heart attack? Death of a spouse? Hurricane, divorce or job loss? In all, the most common outcome was resilience.

Then why do we hear so much about ubiquitous “trauma”? It’s pretty much an accounting error. When things go horribly wrong, we note it. But when things could have gone horribly wrong but don’t, we usually don’t note it. Terrible car accident gives you horrible nightmares? This gets discussed. Get in a similar accident but have no lingering issues? You forget about it.

We’re quick to increase the numerator of traumatic events but usually neglect to increase the denominator of “potentially traumatic” events. George has seen countless examples in his studies of people who initially said nothing very bad ever happened to them only to have them later follow up with: “Oh, wait, wait. Now I remember. A guy once pulled a gun on me in a gas station.”

To be fair, 10-15% of people do experience extended grief. It certainly does happen, it’s real and it sucks. Severe grief (roughly defined as an inability to function and no recovery after 6 months) does require professional treatment. The best kind is usually exposure therapy followed by CBT.

But the vast majority of the time, we’re resilient without much help. But that doesn’t mean traumatic events are fun. So what should we do when we’re waiting for that resilience to kick in?


Appreciate Positive Moments

The Kübler-Ross model wants us to believe grief is a neat, orderly line from devastation to “I’m okay now, thanks.” But the research shows that grief actually oscillates. It’s not uniform, static or predictable. In the aftermath of a difficult event, you’re not always up or always down. And this is a blessing – because we do have moments where we feel good even shortly after tragedy.

We’re told that grief is this somber, all-consuming sadness, like you’re auditioning for the lead role in a black-and-white French film where everyone stares out of rain-streaked windows. But grief is less a linear journey and more a game of emotional pinball. You’re the ball, careening off bumpers of anger, plunging down ramps of denial, and occasionally getting stuck in that annoying spot behind the flipper where sadness and confusion lurk.

And let’s not forget the surprise attacks of normalcy. You’re in the middle of grief, doing your best impression of a Dickensian orphan, when suddenly you find yourself worrying about something utterly mundane, like whether you’re out of toothpaste. It’s like your brain is trying to reboot back to normality, but it keeps glitching.

So appreciate the random positive moments. Researchers used to write off those blips of joy as avoidance or denial, but recent studies have shown that not only are they real – but if we appreciate them, they can improve recovery. Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner found that the more widows and widowers laughed and smiled after a spouse’s death, the better their mental health was two years later.

Don’t get so wrapped up in your sadness that you forget to enjoy the little things, like how funny the word “gubernatorial” sounds or the fact that baby otters exist. Find solace in laughter. It’s the bungee cord that keeps us tethered to reality when we feel like we’re falling into the abyss.

So what else can help?


Get Social

George says, “People who cope well… have a broader network of friends and relatives on whom they can rely, both for emotional support and for help with the details and demands of daily life.”

When you’re dealing with heavy stuff, being social can be challenging. First off, there’s the Herculean task of actually leaving the house. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but sometimes it just makes you really, really tired. When you’re in the throes of grief, the outside world seems about as inviting as a swimming pool filled with eels. You’re expected to put on actual clothes, perhaps apply some semblance of grooming, and interact with humans, all while your inner self resembles a crumpled tissue.

Everyone’s chatting about mundane things like the weather or the latest TV show that’s captured the nation’s dwindling attention span, and there you are, trying to remember how to human. Dealing with others is transformed into a series of awkward encounters where friends treat you with the caution of a bomb disposal expert. You get the inevitable, “How are you holding up?” which is code for “Please don’t start crying because I won’t know what to do.”

But it’s worth it. The research says resilient people are less likely to rely on distraction or avoidance. They don’t hide from the world. And when times are tough, friends are the emotional EMTs who might not always know CPR but can resuscitate your spirit with a well-timed joke or just their sheer, absurd presence.

So when it seems like the world is crumbling, what’s the perspective we should take?



Studies show optimism promotes resilience. People who gave optimistic answers to surveys were more likely to display fortitude when facing adversity years later.

It makes sense. Optimism is positive. It’s what spurs us into action, risks, and questionable fashion choices. And in this case, it isn’t lying to yourself. As we saw, the vast majority of the time, people do recover from tough times on their own so there’s good reason to be positive about the future. (To learn how to be more optimistic, click here.)

So we should think optimistically – but what’s the best way to steer our feelings about the situation?


Emotional Flexibility

In a world where everyone’s inner life is as rich and complex as a tax evasion scheme, people have different responses to difficult situations. Some of us can’t help but let the emotions out. We vent or rage. Others stifle their feelings. They grin and bear it, like a Stepford Wife on Xanax. So which folks come out better?

The ones who can do both. George found people who could express or suppress emotions as needed were the least distressed two years later. Emotional flexibility was a powerful aid in recovery.

So when you need to cry, cry. And when it’s time for a stuff upper lip, do that. But people who were emotionally rigid were more likely to suffer from extended grief.

But how can you occupy your mind when you’re dwelling on your problems?


Benefit Finding

When everything’s as somber as a Morrissey song played at half speed, looking for the silver lining is hard. “Congratulations! Your soul got drop-kicked into another dimension, but look on the bright side – you’re now the proud owner of a depth of character you never wanted.” When your life is burning to the ground, you may feel you lack the mental bandwidth to embark on a positivity scavenger hunt.

But looking for the good inside the bad is powerful. In a better world, our brain would function like Netflix: “You’ve been revisiting this traumatic memory for too long. Are you still watching? Maybe try ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ instead?” But it can be a balm to count your blessings – even when there don’t seem to be any.

In fact, there are some good feelings that we can only have when things are bad. When else can you really learn how strong you are? Or that you have very supportive friends?

It’s even worth it to consider how much worse things could be. Grandpa is annoying when he says, “You know, back in my day, we didn’t have it so easy. We walked 15 miles uphill both ways!” Both ways, Grandpa? What kind of M.C. Escher hellscape did you grow up in? But sometimes Grandpa’s mode of thinking can help. You can respond to a car accident by saying, “This is terrible” or by saying “I’m so lucky to be alive.” And the latter is the more resilient perspective.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up, and learn the good news about what happens when you do need to deal with persistent grief…


Sum Up

Here’s how to be more resilient…

  • Resilience Is The Default: Most people recover from serious emotional faceplants without ever gracing a therapist’s couch. We’re like those wobbly inflatable tube men outside car dealerships—flailing wildly but you can’t keep us down.
  • Appreciate Positive Moments: You’re a complex human being who can feel a range of emotions, sometimes all within the same minute. And that’s okay. Enjoy the good feelings when they make appearances.
  • Get Social: You just want to go home, peel off your “I’m fine” mask, and collapse back into your blanket fortress. But seeing others can really help.
  • Optimism: Shift your inner monologue to slightly more Tigger than Eeyore. The point isn’t to become some delusional cheerleader for your own life. It’s to find those glimmers of hope that keep you going, even when everything else is falling apart.
  • Emotional Flexibility: It’s about embracing the chaos of human feelings. When life throws us into the deep end without floaties, cry when you need to, laugh when you can, and stifle if it helps. Go with the emotional flow and adapt.
  • Benefit Finding: When times are hard it can feel like the emotional equivalent of dumpster diving – but sometimes you uncover something really good.

After big tragedies it’s common to wonder if you’ll ever be happy again. The answer is a resounding “yes.” George did a study following 16,000 bereaved people over 20 years. One of the questions, repeated each year, was “How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” What did he find?

The same pattern we discussed above — the vast majority of people were resilient. They recovered with time. More importantly, roughly 60% of the group reported consistently high life satisfaction over the years. George says, “although they had suffered the pain of grief, for the most part they were satisfied with their lives before, during, and in the many years after their loss.”

You’ll heal. You’ll feel happy again. But it’s a tough road to get there. You slowly, painfully knit yourself back together. Somewhere in the twisted wreckage of your emotions, there’s a little spark of “normal” flickering back to life. You’re on a path to recovery. It’s not a straight path. It’s not a well-paved path. It’s a weird, winding path that sometimes feels like it’s been designed by a drunk city planner.

It’s not the grand, sweeping character arc you might expect, but slowly, in a plot development that no one sees coming, you start to resemble something close to a functional person again.

Be optimistic. Appreciate the good moments. With time, you will be able to find benefit in the bad as well. Looking back will be like sifting through a junk drawer and finding a treasure trove of weird but wonderful trinkets. A bittersweet inventory of moments that now feel as precious as a misshapen clay mug given by a child.

Welcome to the tragicomedy of life. The tears are real but never forget — so are the laughs.


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