Micro-Resilience Deep Dive: What the Research Says
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The Wellness Force community is for those who want to live life well by learning more about emotional and physical intelligence. To me, living life well or wellness is unique to everyone.
Going Beyond Good Vibes Only
While there are certain guidelines and best practices to adopt, there’s no cookie cutter way to achieve it. It’s an iterative process that asks us to dive deeper in order to learn more about ourselves – what we need, what might be holding us back, what best serves us, and more. We see this on both the Wellness Force blog and podcast, which feature experts and aspirational leaders in the field who share their approach and contribution to the world of wellness.
A component of wellness near and dear to my heart that I’ve shared in past articles, micro-resilience, is a specific type of resilience that isn’t reserved for big, life-changing events. Instead, it’s dedicated to the micro-moments in life – the little things that add up over time and can have a far greater impact on our happiness and well-being than we could ever imagine. It’s my intention in this post to educate you further on the science behind micro-resilience and share the empirical evidence that supports it. Excited? Me too!
The Ambiguity Behind Resilience
If there’s one definition of resilience in the dictionary, then people should be aligned on its meaning, right?
…If only that were the case.
My experience with writing research papers in graduate school made it clear that researchers actually tend to disagree on or have varied definitions of various terms – resilience included.
In one study, Kaplan (2005) dedicates an entire article to his frustration over the varied definitions of resilience, noting it has “a plethora of different meanings, many of which are vague and contradictory” (p. 44). He credits the “(absence of) subjective distress”, “factors that increase the likelihood of adverse (benign) outcomes”, “factors that moderate the degree to which hypothetical (protective) risk factors eventuate in more or less adverse outcomes” (Kaplan, 2005, p. 44) and more as the considerations different researchers use when defining and discussing resilience.
In other words, the need for resilience is subjective. The events in our lives that call for resilience vary by individual and are based on how we relate to and experience them.
Before I delve deeper into the science behind micro-resilience, I want to pause and note that micro-resilience isn’t a rejection of resilience on a grander scale. Confusion around what resilience actually entails and when it’s necessary is quite common; micro-resilience is thus simply part of the existing line of questioning around the common definition and application of resilience overall.
Think of micro-resilience as an addition to your current understanding of resilience, not the negation of it.
Why Do We Need Micro-Resilience?
I touched on this briefly in earlier posts, but micro-resilience is crucial because of how we’re wired. We may have evolved as a species since the caveman era but our brains and nervous systems have not. Everything we experience is viewed by the brain through a “fight or flight”, “kill or be killed” lens. In his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains, “The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce” (p. 301).
As far as our brain and nervous system are concerned, everything is about survival.
This negative outlook – our negativity bias – is a biological habit, and it’s pervasive. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs’s (2001) research emphasizes this point. They explain, “In general, and apart from a few carefully crafted exceptions, negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information” (Baumeister et al., 2001, p. 323-324). Regardless of their size or significance, negative thoughts and events remain at the forefront of the human experience. Our negativity bias causes us to look for and focus on the bad regardless of the situation at hand, which can do more harm than good.
Negativity is Proven To Narrow Our Outlook
Negative thoughts are a pretty common part of our daily lives—so much so that in many ways, we tend to ignore them or not address them head on. However, negative thoughts and emotions often come hand in hand, and the empirical research on the power of our emotions makes our negativity bias a real cause of concern. In one study, Fredrickson and Losada (2005) discovered the positivity ratio, uncovering the need for far more positive emotions than negative to “overcome the toxicity of negative affect and to promote flourishing” (p. 681).
In another study, Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) found that “negative emotions narrow one’s momentary thought-action repertoire by preparing one to behave in a specific way (i.e. attack when angry, escape when afraid),” directly impacting our outlook on life. They prevent us from seeing multiple outcomes or opportunities when presented with a problem; there is little hope or vision beyond our immediate reaction and response.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, studies show that our negative emotions have a physical impact as well: “Certain negative emotions, through their association with specific action tendencies, reliably spark cardiovascular activation” (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998, p. 214). Think about when you get stressed, for example. The brain is experiencing discomfort, which it reads as a threat. As a result, your heart starts to race and blood pumps through your veins—your body is preparing you to either fight the (nonexistent) predator or flee.
What the Research Says About Positive Emotions & Micro-Resilience
Research on emotions used to focus only on the negative, yet the introduction of positive psychology brought about a new line of research dedicated to our positive emotions. This is important because, as I shared in a previous post, the cultivation of positive emotions is the “how” behind developing micro-resilience. Positive emotions and resilience go hand in hand, as “positive emotions may influence thought processes and behavior with little effort for most, but especially for resilient people” (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2007, p. 323). This extends to the body as well; “positive emotions contribute to the ability for resilient individuals to physiologically recover from negative emotional arousal” (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2007, p. 320).
Positive emotions can be used to combat negative emotions whether they’re associated with a small or significant detrimental experience.
The research doesn’t stop there. Positive emotions have also been shown to negate negative emotions when experienced in close succession of one another. This quality of positive emotions is known as the undoing effect and was originally solely linked to the adverse physical effects of negative emotion or stressor (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). According to Tugade and Fredrickson (2004), “Experience of positive emotions might have contributed to the ability to achieve efficient emotion regulation, as demonstrated by accelerated cardiovascular recovery from negative emotional arousal (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004, p. 330). Typically “rest and recovery” is solely thought of in physical terms, yet this research proves that we can approach recovery in more ways than one.
Fredrickson (2001) later built upon this definition, including psychological implications. She explains, “A positive emotion may loosen the hold that a negative emotion has gained on that person’s mind and body by dismantling or undoing preparation for specific action” (Fredrickson, 2001, p. 222).
In other words, positive thoughts and emotions help us see things differently and from a wider perspective.
But Wait – Positive Emotions Doesn’t Mean Ignore the Hard Parts
The above research on positive emotions is pretty compelling, right? It can be far too easy to simply say, “Okay, never feeling a negative emotion again! Got it; done and done.”
Whenever I hear this from someone (whether they know about micro-resilience and the empirical evidence behind our positive emotions or not) I have to be honest… I cringe. And then I want to yell “WAIT!” from the top of my lungs.
Practicing micro-resilience through the cultivation of positive emotions does not imply that negative emotions are thus ignored – also known as the Pollyanna effect (Matlin & Gawron, 1979). Tugade and Fredrickson’s (2004) research confirms that their high-resilient participants “experienced high levels of anxiety and frustration, indicating that they did indeed recognize the negativity of the stressful situations they encountered (i.e., were not Pollyannish), yet they were able to experience positive emotions even amidst these negative emotions” (p. 331). The strong correlation between positive emotions, resilience and their ability to undo negative emotions makes positive emotions an attainable, practical way to nurture and promote micro-resilience.
Here’s What You Need to Remember
If you’re feeling inspired and fascinated but also a bit overwhelmed by all of the research and information I just shared with you, rest assured – I totally get it. Take a deep breath in and out and give yourself some credit. You just made it through the end of a very atypical blog post – one that is longer in length and deeply rooted in science and research. Take time to pause, reflect and come back to this post whenever you’d like. I promise you’ll get more out of it each time you read it. Remember, the research on positive emotions is young and at the beginning stages. There’s so much more for us all to learn!
As always, I’d love to hear what you think and how the research supporting micro-resilience may have strengthened your commitment to the practice. Share below or send me a note! I’m excited to hear from you.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology,5, 323-370. doi:10.1037//1089-26188.8.131.523
Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition & emotion, 12(2), 191-220.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American psychologist, 60(7), 678-685.
Kaplan, H. B. (2005). Reconceptualizing Resilience. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Editors), Resilience in Children (pp. 39-55). New York: Spring. Retrieved December 06, 2017.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Matlin, M. W., & Gawron, V. J. (1979). Individual differences in Pollyannaism. Journal of Personality Assessment, 43(4), 411-412.
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(2), 320-333.
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2007). Regulation of positive emotions: Emotion regulation strategies that promote resilience. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8(3), 311-333.
About the Author
As a former marketing strategist and avid reader, Sofia Adler is a lover of storytelling (especially the stories we tell ourselves). Sofia graduated from Colgate University with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Education with a Mind/Body practice concentration and Coaching Emphasis (100+ hours of training) from Teachers College, Columbia University. Sofia is a Mindset + Leadership coach, empowering others to honor their truth in transition. Her Master’s degree, mindfulness meditation teacher training, and yoga teacher training inform her coaching philosophy, which is rooted in three pillars: positive psychology, mindset/mindfulness, and resilience.