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Resilience/Flourishing

By Wayne Hammond

Resilience is bouncing back from adversity, but flourishing is bouncing forward to new opportunities. We say a person is resilient when she has the tenacity to withstand and recover from painful or challenging situations. It’s returning to the baseline by coping with stress and setbacks well enough so she isn’t derailed by the experiences. The goal is to regain stability and restore equilibrium. We can applaud, and even be amazed at, people who endure severe suffering and find their way through.

Flourishing is that, but it’s more than that. It shifts the focus from getting back to the baseline to advancing, thriving and personal growth. People who flourish continuously push their baseline forward, taking wise risks and learning from each experience. The result is emotional authenticity (because they aren’t afraid of their feelings), personal integrity (because they have nothing to hide), growth, fulfillment and the thrill of seeing their positive impact on others. The eventual outcome of flourishing isn’t just resilience but a state of optimal well-being, enhanced performance and personal development. It taps into our deepest sense of purpose and draws out our highest potential.

As a therapist, I was trained to help people deal with past hurts and bad choices, but I didn’t learn how to help them go further and use their experiences to give them the wisdom to handle life’s challenges more effectively in the future. Before I grasped the flourishing model, I helped people deal with one problem, then another and then another. I was making them dependent on me, not encouraging them to be strong, wise and independent people.

This limiting pattern was especially true when I worked with addicts and people who had suffered domestic violence. When addicts went to treatment, they usually faced their flaws and admitted they had made a series of bad decisions. And when abuse victims found safe havens and came for counseling, most of them made commitments to avoid abusers for the rest of their lives. But the recidivism statistics aren’t encouraging: 40-60% of addicts and alcoholics relapse within a month of leaving treatment, and 85% relapse within a year. Approximately 50% of domestic abuse victims return to the original abuser or find someone else who treats them the same way.

Those who return to their addiction or an abuser may have experienced some distance from their triggers in treatment or a safe place, but only for a while. If they don’t internalize crucial lessons that propel them forward into new ways of thinking, acting and relating, it’s easy to slip back into familiar, destructive patterns. In other words, it’s not enough to stop drinking or using, and it’s not enough to get away from an abuser. Real emotional, psychological and relational health takes more; it takes the tools of flourishing.

When people uncover their innate strengths and put them into practice, a new world opens up to them. They’re less and less dependent on a system to protect them, and they’re increasingly empowered to thrive. They then say, “I wouldn’t have chosen the pain I’ve endured (and inflicted on others), but I’ve learned from it. I know how to create success that reinforces my sense of value and purpose.” The old saying might be trite, but it’s true: “What do you do with a bunch of lemons? You make lemonade.”

The concept of flourishing isn’t just textbook theory to me. I’ve lived it. When I was in the third grade, my teacher became frustrated with my lack of progress and pronounced, “Wayne, you’re stupid!” It was a label that stuck, branded deep in my soul. For almost 20 years, I believed I was mentally deficient because I couldn’t learn like the other kids. I was convinced I’d never read or write.

When I was 27, I decided to give college a try. My first attempt at writing a paper as part of the application didn’t go well. On an entrance exam, I scored 10 out of 100. Thankfully, I met a professor who changed my life. He told me, “Wayne, you have some good ideas, but you don’t know how to express them. I’ll teach you how to read, write and study so you can succeed in college.”

He worked with me for eight months, patiently drawing out my latent strengths and teaching me how to study. When I applied again, I met the criteria to be accepted, even though I was much older than the other incoming freshmen. When I got the grade back from my first paper, it said A+. I made a 4.0 that semester . . . and every semester for the next fifteen years of college, graduate school and doctoral work.

What happened? What turned my life around? It was when one person saw strengths in me that no one else saw, believed in me and walked with me as I took halting steps of progress. Each success gave me more confidence that I could reach a little higher and succeed a little more.

All people want to be successful, and they all want their lives to be full of meaning, but they don’t know how to get there. I had been one of those in a bubble of isolation and despair, but the professor identified my strengths, imparted the skills and believed in me so I could flourish. At that point, it was up to me to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities he had given me. I could have chosen to remain in the bubble, but instead I took a chance to see if what he saw in me could become a new normal for my life.

ELEMENTS OF FLOURISHING

Let me unpack more about flourishing:

Positive emotions. Flourishing people are more likely to experience and cultivate positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, hope and love. When faced with pleasant situations, they savor the positive experiences and use these emotions as a source of motivation and resilience. In challenging situations, their positive emotions can serve as a buffer against stress and help maintain a positive outlook.

Resilience. Flourishing is associated with higher levels of resilience, which means individuals can bounce back from adversity more effectively. When confronted with challenges, they draw upon their cultivated psychological well-being and emotional stability to cope and adapt. They view setbacks as opportunities for growth rather than insurmountable obstacles or inescapable labels that scream, “Failure!”

Optimism. Those who flourish tend to be optimistic about the future, but it’s not blind hope. This optimism enables them to approach both good and challenging situations with a sense of hope and confidence. They are more likely to set and work toward meaningful goals, even when facing difficulties.

Self-efficacy. Flourishing includes the belief in one's ability to achieve goals and overcome obstacles. This self-belief empowers people to take constructive actions in both positive and adverse situations. They are more likely to persevere and effectively problem-solve.

Positive relationships. People who flourish have strong and supportive social networks. These relationships provide a source of emotional support and assistance during challenging times. Additionally, they can enhance the enjoyment of positive situations by sharing experiences with loved ones.

Adaptability. Flourishing is associated with greater adaptability. When circumstances change, whether for better or worse, people who are flourishing tend to adjust more readily and make the most of the new situation. They are open to learning and growth, even in uncertain or unfamiliar environments.

Meaning and purpose. Flourishing is characterized by a deep, abiding sense of meaning and purpose, giving individuals a reason to thrive and contributing to their well-being and resilience in both positive and challenging contexts.

Increased competence. People who flourish demonstrate an enhanced capacity to engage life’s challenges in competent ways. They are perpetual learners, acquiring knowledge and skills they can use in new situations.

How can we experience these benefits? Only if we undergo a significant paradigm shift in our thinking, beliefs and behavior.

THE PARADIGM SHIFT

The concept of flourishing represents a significant paradigm shift in the fields of psychology, well-being, and personal development. Traditionally, much of psychological research and practice had been focused on identifying and addressing what’s wrong with individuals (such as mental illnesses or emotional deficits). However, the flourishing paradigm shifts the focus from what’s wrong to what’s right with individuals and communities. Here’s how this shift unfolds:

Positive psychology. Flourishing is closely associated with positive psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology that emerged in the late 20th century. Positive psychology emphasizes the study of strengths, virtues and factors that contribute to a fulfilling and meaningful life. It investigates what makes life worth living, rather than just diagnosing and treating psychological disorders.

Emphasis on well-being. Flourishing places a central emphasis on well-being, encompassing not only the absence of illness but also the presence of positive qualities and experiences. It considers emotional, psychological and social well-being, all of which contribute to an individual's overall thriving.

A strengths-based approach. One of the key aspects of the flourishing paradigm is the adoption of a strengths-based approach. Instead of focusing primarily on weaknesses and deficits, it encourages identifying and nurturing an individual’s or community’s strengths, talents and resources.

Cultivating positive traits. The flourishing paradigm identifies and encourages positive traits such as gratitude, resilience, optimism and empathy. These qualities are seen as fundamental building blocks of a flourishing life.

The goal of personal growth. Flourishing recognizes that personal growth and self-actualization are ongoing processes. It encourages individuals to set and pursue meaningful goals, develop a sense of purpose and continuously strive for self-improvement and fulfillment.

A shift toward prevention and promotion. While traditional psychology often focuses on treating mental health issues once they arise, the flourishing paradigm promotes prevention and proactive well-being. It equips individuals and communities with the tools needed to flourish and thrive before problems become severe.

A holistic perspective. Flourishing takes a holistic view of human well-being, acknowledging the fact that it involves multiple dimensions, including physical, mental, emotional and social aspects. It recognizes the interconnectedness of these dimensions in promoting a flourishing life.

Community and societal implications. Beyond individual well-being, the flourishing paradigm has implications for building more positive and resilient communities and societies. It underscores the importance of social connections, community support and policies that promote well-being at a broader level.

In essence, flourishing represents a shift in focus from a deficit-based model to a strengths-based, positive and holistic model of well-being. It acknowledges that individuals and communities have the capacity not only to overcome challenges but also to thrive, grow and lead fulfilling lives by nurturing their inherent strengths and positive qualities—and everyone has them. This paradigm shift has had a profound impact on psychology, counseling, education and various other fields because it provides a more balanced and comprehensive approach to enhancing human potential and well-being.

At the most basic and immediate level, many of us see our emotions as a threat to our safety and security. Painful ones, like hurt, fear, anger, sadness and shame are, indeed, “flashing lights on the dashboard of our hearts.” But what do we do when we’re driving along and we see the light flash, indicating our car is overheating, a tire is low or we’re running out of gas? If we ignore the lights, we’ll almost certainly experience far greater trouble a few miles down the road.

But panic isn’t a good option either. When our anxiety eclipses our ability to think, we make bad decisions and compound the problem. How then can our emotions help us move forward? The message of our emotions is to pay attention and enlist the strengths we either already possess or that we’re developing.

FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES

It’s often helpful to get a snapshot of the principles inherent in any model, whether in engineering a bridge or building a flourishing life. Look at these traits of people who focus on their strengths instead of their deficiencies:

  • Those who flourish are aware of their unique strengths and competencies.

  • Their strengths, not their weaknesses and flaws, are the foundation of their identities.

  • The more they maximize their strengths, the more their strengths become powerful and effective.

  • All of us are doing the best we can with what we’ve experienced and how we’ve learned to cope up to this point. Our coping strategies make perfect sense to us.

  • When they feel secure and valued, all people, regardless of personality or background, want to explore opportunities and contribute in constructive ways. It’s in our DNA.

  • A person’s capacity to thrive can be realized when he or she is supported with the right conditions and resources.

  • Focusing on obstacles and flaws limits our creativity to find new solutions to old problems.

  • People who feel valued are receptive to inspiring ideas.

  • Flourishing is never stagnant; it’s either growing or ebbing.

  • Positive change happens in the context of safe, unconditional, and authentic relationships.

  • Self-regard is more important than what others think about us.

Some who read these principles think, So what’s new? That’s the way I’ve been living. But many have a different reaction: I can’t imagine living this way! Sign me up!

THE FOUR PHASES OF TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE

Change from the outside-in seldom lasts, but inside-out transformation becomes a lifestyle. Much of the rest of this book is about the process required to craft a flourishing life. The four components are:

Connect. As we’ve seen, we’re created as relational creatures, and we function well only when we feel safe and valued in stable relationships. Without these connections, we’re left with an array of coping strategies to please people to win their approval, strive to prove we’re valuable, dominate others so they can’t hurt us or hide physically or emotionally so no one can get too close. But with powerfully affirming human connections, we feel free to explore and take risks without the fear of ridicule.

Inspire. In this stage, we’re invited to reframe our stories, from anxious to confident, from desperate to calm and reasoned and from fearful to bold. We’re more understanding and patient with those who struggle with life’s heartaches because we realize all of us are simply doing the best we can in light of the circumstances of our pasts. But in a relationship of security, safety, encouragement and unconditional regard, we’re inspired to reach for new goals.

Build. As we’re inspired to take new risks, we learn from our failures as well as our successes (and if we’re secure enough, we learn more from our failures than our successes). In this stage we develop latent skills and acquire new ones, we gain wisdom in how to maximize our strengths and our goals become clarified as we grow more confident.

In this stage, we also develop our soft skills, the ability to relate to others in productive ways. Hard skills can be taught in a classroom and fine-tuned in experience, but soft skills are honed in the give and take of relating to people in various situations. Hard skills often open doors of opportunity, but soft skills enable us to be excellent team members and team leaders . . . and get promoted.

Empower. The goal of those of us who are parents, teachers, executives, coaches and team leaders isn’t to use people to fulfill our aims but to empower them to be all they can be, which always produces wins for everyone. People in this stage are autonomous learners, continually stretching and growing, and enjoying a network of creative partners.

This is the pathway to a flourishing life, but before we explore these phases, we’ll take a longer look at the importance of changing our mindsets—the way we see ourselves, others, challenges and opportunities.



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