Resilience is an interesting word. There are hundreds of definitions and yet it is very hard to define.

A bit like confidence or self-awareness, we know if someone has got it, but we do not always know how we know they have got it.

I have attended and completed several different bits of training on resilience, and one thing that always comes out in them is the need for optimism as a driver for the resilient person.

Optimism is a belief that things will get better. The close cousin of hope, optimism is sometimes more useful because it is not as blurry or difficult to grab hold of as hope can sometimes feel it is. 

When sometimes tells me they ‘hope’ they will be able to do something in the future, I always ask ‘why is it a hope and not a goal?’ but with optimism, It feels like it is more a perpetual state of mind that can be applied to life every day, irrespective of what is going on. You do not need to be in a negative state to be optimistic – optimism is just there, in the same way discipline or accountability are.

So, the question then becomes: what is optimism? How do we identify it and how can we harness it to bolster our resilience?

Optimism is comprised of several strands: the way we think, the language we use and our cognitive patterns we use to make sense of something we think, feel or experience.

Our inner chatter is powerful. It is constantly active, telling us how we should think about a certain thing or respond to a situation. A guy beeps his horn at me on a roundabout because I accidently pull out in front of him and my inner chatter says, ‘you are a rubbish driver, and that guy has just called you out on it because he knows you are too’ and I am feeling anxious and not confident in my ability to drive for days.

But if my internal chatter says ‘I have made a mistake there. That guy was obviously upset about it and that is okay, but it doesn’t make me a bad driver’ my emotional and behavioural response is completely different.

Psychologists Gregory McClell Buchanan and Martin Seligman call this ‘Explanatory Style’, the way we respond to an event happening to us indicates the reserves of optimism we have.

If we see a problem as ‘external’ to us, whether that be a person or situation, and we see it as ‘unstable’ meaning it has the ability to change and be controlled, and we see the issue as specific, i.e contained to that one event, we are more likely to remain optimistic going forward, and therefore more resilient.

For example, if the ‘bib the horn’ guy did it again to me and I thought:

  1. He is bibbing because he has not controlled his anger.
  2. I can drive away from this and not be in the situation anymore.
  3. I made a mistake I do not usually make.

I have responded in an external, unstable, and specific way. Buchanan and Seligman say this style is that of an optimist. The converse: Internal (my fault) Stable (situation cannot be changed) Global (this affects all areas of my life) way of thinking is, they say, traits of the pessimist.

On the course we talk a lot about the way we think, the way in which we see the world and how our world view interacts with the view of those around us.

It is the foundation of self-awareness and through that we find optimism which is the engine of resilience.