The Science-Based Ingredient for Greater Resilience

When I was 29 years old, my mother died. It was completely unexpected; she was only 61. In an instant, decades of plans disappeared.
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When I was 29 years old, my mother died. It was completely unexpected; she was only 61. In an instant, decades of plans disappeared. Going through birth with her calm presence beside me. Her spoiling my children with stuff they shouldn't have. Christmases together, full of music and friends - a vibrant, perfectly manicured event every time. An all-knowing guru advising me through the challenges of being a wife, a mother, a professional.

acacia parks and her mother

In the years since, I've had to cope with a completely different future than the one I'd planned. I gave birth with a doula beside me, not my mother. My husband and I are raising my daughter alone, and we're doing it well. Christmas is a small, quiet event spent at home with just our immediate family; there's no music, no bustling household, no presents by her crackling fireplace. At the time she died, I thought I'd never manage, but today, I have recreated my life to work without her in it, and it does just that -- it works. When I don't know what to do, I take my best guess and press onward. I have survived. Remarkably, I am happy.

How did this happen? As a researcher who studies happiness, I have spent a long time thinking about how it is possible for me to be happy today. The answer, as it turns out, lies in research about emotion, and what function various emotions - positive and negative -- serve for us. Negative emotions make us focus; at the time of my mother's death, my loss was all I could think about. There was no big picture of how I would be okay in the long run. There was no perspective. Little by little, though, as time passed, I was able to gain some of that perspective, and I remember the moment when that process began.

I was sitting in a room full of people who knew and loved my mother at her memorial service. One of her friends from long ago -- before my sister and I were born -- got up and told a story. In her youth, my mother had been a singer and a music producer. One of the biggest hits she worked on was a song called "Undercover Angel," by Alan O'Day. Alan was the one telling the story. She was over at his house for dinner one night with some friends, not long after "Undercover Angel" went Gold. At one point, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. She came out with a look of consternation on her face, a roll of toilet paper in her hands, and said, "Really Alan? Single ply?" The guy had a #1 record on Bilboard and was too cheap to spring for the good stuff - my mom, of course, had to call him out. I heard this story and laughed and laughed and laughed. It was all at once so very her, and yet, was a part of her I had never seen -- how she was with her friends when she was my age. Laughing at that story, I found a little pocket of relief from my grief, a little moment where I was able to see that I wasn't going to hurt forever. I hadn't healed yet, but it was a start.

I have heard many people say that it's coarse or disloyal to feel happy during a time of loss or difficulty. The research says, however, that positive emotions are the magic ingredient of resilience. They keep us moving along even when we want nothing more than to lie down and give up. We need positive emotions -- like amusement, gratitude, joy and excitement -- to keep our heads above water. Having these feelings makes us human.

One of my reasons for sharing my story for National Women's Health Week is to tell you about two of the exercises I find most helpful in achieving resilience in the face of adversity:

  1. Gratitude. Even if you have difficult things going on in your life, chances are there's something great in your life that you're forgetting about because you're too busy focusing on the negative. Gratitude helps us reorient ourselves so that we can see what's most important: the people, situations, and things in our lives that make us happy.
  • Optimism. When I don't like how things are going in my life right now, I make a plan so that I know how to make things better. By thinking about what we're good at and what we value, we can leverage the former to work towards the latter. For example, my first Christmas after Mom's death was sad -- it was nothing like it had always been, and I didn't have the ability to recreate the type of Christmas party she was known for. Instead of giving up, I redoubled my efforts to make sure that the next Christmas was better. I thought about what my strengths were and created new Christmas traditions that would fit my lifestyle and capabilities.
  • We'll all experience tough times. But if you practice these two skills, you'll emerge from them with greater resilience than before.

    Acacia Parks is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hiram College and Scientific Advisor to Her research asks how people can most effectively improve their happiness with a focus on self-help methods for increasing happiness via books, smartphones, and technology. She is an Associate Editor at the Journal of Positive Psychology and has edited three scholarly books. Outside of work, Acacia and her family own a small farm, where they raise turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese.