How to build resilience in middle age

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg co-wrote the book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience And Finding Joy, after the death of her husband Dave Goldberg from cardiac arrhythmia in 2015.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg co-wrote the book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience And Finding Joy, after the death of her husband Dave Goldberg from cardiac arrhythmia in 2015.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW YORK • Mums and dads worry over how they can build resilience - the ability to bounce back from adversity - in their kids, given the brutal race to excel both in and out of the classroom.

But are the grown-ups themselves equipped to deal with the many curve balls that now come at them in today's faster-paced world, such as job obsolescence?

Midlife can also bring stresses from divorce, the death of a parent and retirement worries, yet many people do not build coping skills.

The good news is that some of the experiences of middle age - such as perspectives gained from life experiences - can give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience, said management and psychology professor Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania.

He and Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote the book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience And Finding Joy.

Scientists who study stress say it is vital to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time - even if death stares in your face.

Last year, Dr Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was leaving a deli when he was shot by a disgruntled former employee.

He spent five days in intensive care.

"After 25 years of studying resilience, I had to be resilient myself," said Charney, co-author of Resilience: The Science Of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. "It's good to be prepared for it, but it's not too late once you've been traumatised to build the capability to move forward."

Here are some ways you can beef up coping smarts in middle age.


Optimism is part-genetic, partlearnt. So if you were born into a family of worriers, you can still find your inner optimist.

Optimism does not mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think: "I'll never recover from this."

An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying: "This is going to be difficult, but it's a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy."

Dr Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School and Charney's co-author, said optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. His advice: "Hang out with optimistic people."


When Charney was recovering from the shooting, he reframed the situation, focusing on the opportunity the setback presented.

"I knew I could be a role model. I have thousands of students watching my recovery. This gives me a chance to utilise what I've learnt."


People have a tendency to blame themselves for life's setbacks and ruminate about what they could have done differently.

But it is far better to remind yourself that a number of factors most likely contributed to the mistake, and shift your focus to the next steps you should take.

"Telling yourself that a situation is not personal, pervasive or permanent can be extremely useful," Prof Grant said.

"There is almost no failure that is totally personal."


When times are tough, people often remind themselves that other people, such as war refugees or a friend with cancer, have it worse.

While that may be true, you will get a bigger confidence boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.

"It's easier to relate to your former self than someone in another country," said Prof Grant. "Look back and say, 'I've gone through something worse in the past. This is not the most horrible thing I have ever faced or will ever face. I know I can deal with it.'"


Resilience studies show that people are more resilient when they have strong support from friends and family. But you can get an even bigger boost by giving support.

In a study this year of psychological resilience among American military veterans, higher levels of gratitude, altruism and a sense of purpose predicted resiliency.

"Any way you can reach out and help other people is a way of moving outside of yourself, and this is an important way to enhance your own strength," Dr Southwick said.


Resilience does not just come from navigating a negative experience.

You can build your steeliness by putting yourself in challenging situations. Take an adventure vacation. Run a triathlon. Share your secret poetry skills with strangers at a poetry slam.

And why not learn a new sport with your kid, instead of watching from the sidelines and getting stressed out over his fumbles?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'How to build resilience in middle age'. Print Edition | Subscribe