Trevor Greene, retired Canadian Forces Captain, can now do 30 squats while gripping a ladder attached to a wall. This would not be remarkable in any way except he had an axe put through the back of his head five years ago in Afghanistan. He had been sitting with Afghan villagers to talk with them about getting clean water for their homes and farms, and had removed his helmet as a gesture of respect and trust.
The military have always understood the importance of physical conditioning. They have also come to understand the importance of psychological health. When the US military decided to launch the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, General George Casey, former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, turned to Martin Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania, known for their work on resilience. This endeavor is described in Dr. Seligman’s latest book, Flourish.
General Casey’s concerns went beyond the prevention of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although that was certainly a consideration. The statistics show that it’s the most pessimistic soldiers, those most prone to catastrophizing, that fall victim to the syndrome. Those least likely to get it? The soldiers who demonstrate high resilience, or the ability to keep going when things get tough.
The most resilient of all, like Captain Greene, actually demonstrate Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), a level of psychological functioning that is higher than before the trauma. Its existence was confirmed through a questionnaire on the website www.authentichappiness.org, which listed the fifteen worst things a person can experience in their lives, including torture, loss of a child, rape and imprisonment. Dr. Seligman and his researchers discovered that individuals who had experienced one dreadful event had more intense strengths and higher well-being than those who had experienced none. Strengths increased with the number awful events, with those experiencing two being stronger than one, and three stronger than two. Doesn’t exactly make me want to sign up for such a “growth opportunity”, but it is encouraging to understand that PTSD is not an inevitable outcome of trauma. What doesn’t kill us can actually make us stronger, to paraphrase Nietzsche.
While there are several factors that contribute to resilience, the key is the ability to reframe a negative event or trauma, and draw on mental and emotional reserves to persist in the face of adversity, despite natural inclination. This tendency is most often found in people described as optimists. There is lots of evidence to suggest a high degree of heritability in our sunny or frowny nature, but we can train our thinking to make the most of what comes factory-installed.
This is not happiology. One doesn’t need to turn into Goldie Hawn to learn resilience. There are many examples of legendary gloomsters who displayed enormous resilience in the face of sobering odds, among them Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, two men heavily predisposed toward depression.
Pessimists view bad things that happen to them as permanent, pervasive and personal. They receive a rejection letter and interpret it to mean they are complete losers, in every department in their lives and always will be. With that outlook, why bother trying? This explanatory style leads to a narrowed focus and can result in learned helplessness and action paralysis.
Optimists view bad things differently; they are temporary, local and general. While an optimist might well feel tremendous disappointment at receiving the same rejection letter, once the setback has been processed and acknowledged, they are able to see possibilities leading to different courses of action. On what basis did the rejection take place? What needs to change to be accepted? How many people applied and how many were rejected? OK, I need to sharpen up a few things, and try again. I see it wasn’t just me, either.
So how do we shift from a pessimistic to an optimistic explanatory style? It’s as simple as ABC. The common perception is that Adversity leads directly to Consequence. Not so. It’s the Belief in between that causes the mischief. So change the Belief. Gather the evidence – Just The Facts, Ma’am. What happened, and what needs to be different? Is there any reason to believe this adversity has to go on any longer than necessary, or needs to affect any other area of my life?
It takes time, patience and an open mental stance to learn the reframing skills of an optimist, but it’s well worth the effort. Optimistic people live longer, happier and healthier lives. For instance, studies conclude that optimism is strongly related to protection from cardio vascular disease, even when controlling for traditional risk factors such as obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
If it helps create more resilient soldiers in combat, think what learned optimism and changing our explanatory style can do for us on the home front.