6 scientific methods for building resilience

  • building resilience

Failure is an inevitable part of life. And something you regularly face as an entrepreneur. It happens all the time: A string of “No’s” from investors, customer drop-offs, missed project milestones … the list goes on. But no matter the size of the failure, the outcome is always the same – a drop in productivity, a lack of drive, and a hit on your personal resilience. Therefore building resilience becomes a key skill to develop.

What sets apart those who are resilient from those who aren’t? How are resilient people wired differently? And how are they better able to overcome failure as a result? It comes down to them having a larger repertoire of positive emotions at their disposal.

By the end of this article you will have a better understanding of how to stop your negative emotions from interfering with your resilience by replacing them with three of the most important positive emotions: joy, contentment, and interest.

As always, our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have gone through many papers and research so that you can be confident when implementing our recommendations.


Breaking out of the failure spiral with positive emotions

breaking out of failure

source – caricole.com

You know that saying by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Well, unfortunately that doesn’t hold true for everyone. Time and time again, research has shown that when a person fails, they are more likely to fail a second or third time around.

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Simply put, failure begets failure. It’s a spiral that explains the onslaught of negative emotions that compounds the experience (and increased likelihood) of failure down the road.

Among the many negative emotions responsible for sucking you into this messy cycle are: depression, disappointment, and indifference. Building resilience means breaking out of this downward failure spiral by cultivating the positive emotion counterparts to these three negative states:

In other words, instead of depression it’s joy. Instead of disappointment it’s contentment. And instead of indifference it’s interest. These are what’s needed for building resilience over the long-term and to overcome failure.


Building resilience with positive emotions

positive emotions

source – e26.it

Building up your repertoire of positive emotions will prevent you from falling victim to the downward spiral of failure. This idea comes from the broaden-and-build theory in psychology. It says that positive emotions are evolved adaptations that help build lasting resources for the long-run.

You see, negative emotions come from our ‘old brain’, the areas responsible for narrowing our attention and physiological responses to immediate threats in the environment. The only thing that negative emotions care about is survival in the now. Nothing else.

Opposite to this, positive emotions predict valued outcomes such as health and longevity. The positive emotions are all about broadening and building for the future. They broaden our exposure to new things and allow us to build the resources needed to attain them. So, while negative emotions help us survive right now, positive emotions allow us to thrive all the way into the future.  

Overcoming failure is a game that’s played in the future. With only negative emotions, you simply can’t play the game. Failure will lead to failure which will lead to more failure as you merely think about surviving each passing experience. But positive emotions build lasting resources so you can play the game as an expert, allowing you to plan ahead and break free of that failure spiral. Here they are:

Joy ⇾ Cultivates more generic thoughts/actions by building up physical, social and intellectual resources.

Contentment ⇾ Responsible for broadening your self and world views.

Interest and curiosity ⇾ Leads to expert knowledge in an area, setting you apart from others, leading you towards success.

But, the real question is, how do we foster these positive emotions? How do we play the game like a pro?


Resilience training to replace negative emotions with three positive ones

resilience training

source – theawkwardyeti.com

Let’s dive into how we can avoid the negative emotions through developing their more adaptive, lasting, and positive counterparts.


Resilience training to cultivate lasting joy

Joy is a classic positive emotion and arises in safe, familiar contexts that require little effort. More specifically, joy stimulates an urge to play and be playful in both intellectual and artistic forms. It’s no surprise that cultivating more joy in your life is one major way to broaden your repertoire of positive emotions. Let’s go through a couple easy ways to cultivate this emotion more often.


Activity #1: Remember three funny things for building resilience

This daily activity is all about humor. Humor is a powerful way to bring more joy into your life. More importantly, research shows that humor is a powerful way to create bonds with others. You’re actually 30 times more likely to laugh with others than alone.

Laughter can also have positive physiological effects on your body, by acting as a subconscious signal that you are in a state of safety and relaxation. When you laugh, your brain receives that as an input and “decides” that everything is good and that survival mode isn’t something to be concerned about.

As entrepreneurs, you most likely spend most of your day dealing with serious issues and having serious conversations. Taking some time to reflect on the funny things that happened throughout your day is a way to bring some playfulness to your daily routine.

For 7 consecutive days take 10 minutes each day to complete the following task:

  1. Write down the three of the funniest things you experienced, witnessed, or heard that day and describe how they made you feel. Be specific!
    • Can’t remember anything funny? Go find them! Here are a couple uplifting sites to get you started.
  2. Write down why you found it funny. The more detail you use in describing the three situation the more effective this activity will be.
  3. Write these three funny things in a journal right before bed. This will help you create a habit as you are anchoring the task to another (i.e., journaling).

Doing this activity daily for 7 days has been shown to reduce depression and boost joy for months after.


Activity #2: Play more to help build resilience

In the broadest sense of the word, joy creates the urge to be more playful. This playfulness can come out physically, mentally, intellectually, and socially. Play can take many forms. It can involve discovering something new, building something, exploring a new place or simply dancing by yourself to some music.

This activity should be done over a day where you have quite a bit of free time. Feel free to also spread this over two days. The point is to broaden your thought-action repertoire — in-the-moment thoughts and actions— by completing activities that bring you joy through pleasure, through engagement, and through meaning.

Set aside some time during the day to partake in each of these activities:

  1. Choose an activity you enjoy doing alone. This can be anything that brings you personal pleasure, reading a good book, listening to music, watching a movie, exercising, etc.
  2. Choose an activity you enjoy doing with others. This can be something like catching up with a friend over a glass of wine or coffee, going on a hike, catching a new movie, going to an art gallery, etc.
  3. Choose an activity that you would consider to be personally meaningful. This could be volunteering at an animal shelter, calling a friend to catch up, practicing yoga to enhance your state of well-being, etc.
  4. At the end of the day, record some details about the event. What did you feel during and after the activity? What feelings lasted throughout the day? Did you prefer one activity to another? Reflect on the type of joy and happiness each activity brought you.

The downward spiral of failure will lead to feelings of depression. Cultivating more instances of its counterpart — joy — will allow us to become more resilient when faced with inevitable adversities. And, one of the easiest ways to increase the level of joy in our lives is to do more things that make us happy.

Despite the obvious benefits, we have a hard time remembering to make time for these things. By specifically scheduling in time to do the things you love will help cultivate more instances of this positive, joyful state. Additionally, as different activities bring us different kinds of joy, you will also broaden the extent of these emotions and add them to your repertoire. Novelty is an important component of happiness. So get creative!


Resilience training for fostering secure contentment

secure contentment

source – lieslfrank.com.au

Contentment is more of a mindful emotion in that the changes it brings tend to be more cognitive rather than physical. It comes from a state of fulfillment, gratification, and satisfaction. Like before, this positive emotion broadens a person’s thought-action repertoire and strengthens resilience.

When trying to cultivate more contentment in your life, relaxation techniques tend to work best as they are the greatest at counteracting the problems stemming from fear, disappointment, and anxiety. Let’s try a couple techniques that will help you combat these negative emotions and lead to more feelings of contentment — because who doesn’t need more of that?


Activity #3: Building resilience through guided imagery

With the growing craze of meditation and mindfulness, other relaxation techniques have come on the scene. And they shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s one in particular that has been around for a long time now and gets used by professional athletes and top executives for optimizing peak psychological functioning.

It’s referred to as visualization.

Guided imagery is a form of relaxation meditation and involves using your imagination to help bring your body into a more relaxed state. Just as a tense body can put us on-edge through thoughts that make us angry or anxious, we can also use our thoughts in a more productive way to enter into a physical state which is more calm and peaceful. The cause-and-effect relationship between body and mind is bidirectional, and can be used to your advantage.

You see, we have the ability to stimulate the same brain areas when we visualize an action as when we actually perform the same action. For example, brain imaging techniques have shown us that when you visualize lifting your hand, you stimulate the same part of your brain as when you actually lift your hand.

Take 5-10 minutes a day to complete the following exercise:

  1. Find a comfortable and quiet space either sitting or lying down, let your limbs relax and close your eyes.
  2. Imagine a safe place that brings you to a state of contentment. This could be a place from your past or something you come up with through imagination. For example, you could imagine yourself on a quiet beach, in the middle of a forest, a grassy plain, at your childhood home, etc.
  3. Let the scene become as vivid and real as possible and use all of your senses. See the waves come up onto the shore or the light filtering through the trees, feel the gentle breeze and the warm touch of the sun on your skin, hear the creeks and sounds of that old house or the forest, smell the flowers or the salt in the air, etc.
  4. Feel as though you’re actually there. Smile, take it all in and let your body completely relax.
  5. Continue to use your imagination for the full duration, paying more attention to different things. Take yourself for a walk along that beach or through that forest.
  6. When you’re finished, do a gentle stretch and notice the feeling of contentment as you come out of your visualization.

Note, visualization will not be relaxing right away. You may notice that it’s going to take a little practice because it’s not a natural state for us to be in. When you first start out, try not to think about what you’re supposed to do and how to feel; this added effort will only prevent the visualization from working effectively. Instead be patient with yourself and do what feels natural at the moment.


Activity #4: Use the method acting techniques to build resilience

This is another relaxation technique requiring you to relive positive emotions that you have experienced before in life (making it more likely that you will elicit those same emotions again). These kinds of tasks engage your memory and emotional centers of your brain so that you re-experience the emotions, memories and situations in your life. For example, have you ever heard a piece of music or experienced a smell and been transported back to a memory from the past? The same goes for this but you are getting there through this acting technique.

Spend 3-5 minutes everyday for a week to complete this exercise:

  1. Think back to a time where you were fully and completely content. In order for this to work, ensure that you are taking a first-person approach to this technique.
  2. Experience this emotion over again fully. Think about the setting, who you were with, what you felt and saw. Similar to the guided imagery technique, try to place yourself there in that moment. The point of this exercise is to relive the positive emotion as if you were there experiencing it all over again.
  3. Open your eyes and take a moment to reflect on how you feel. Chances are you will be experiencing that emotion again just from thinking about it. The areas in the brain responsible for processing your emotions and memories are highly intertwined with overlapping structural features. This shared neural firing/wiring means recollecting past experiences also prompts the processing of certain emotions.

The purpose of this technique is to focus your attention on an emotion-eliciting situation. In doing so, you increase the likelihood that you will re-experience the target emotion and avoid the negative “survival” cycle of failure by building up your repertoire of these positive emotions.


Resilience training for growing sustainable interest

sustainable interest

source – shutterstock.com

Interest and related states such as excitement, wonder, and curiosity come up in contexts that are safe and offer a sense of novelty, change, or mystery. It’s a paradox that in our society with the internet at our fingertips, disinterest is becoming more prominent. We move on from one thing to the next without so much as a thought.

This lack of direction leaves many of us feeling unmotivated while on our path toward success. Naturally then, overcoming this emotion by replacing it with its counterpart is a worthwhile endeavor.

The momentary thought-action tendency of interest is exploration, leading towards increasing knowledge and experience. A broadened mindset of interest is one that is curious but open to new ideas, experiences, and actions. As you can see, the development of our ‘interest repertoire’ is unmistakably necessary.

Over time with sustained exploration, interest also has the power to store cognitive abilities and knowledge. Building these resources can become extremely valuable in later moments and under different emotional states. Let’s take a look at 2 activities that can lead us to cultivate more interest.


Activity #5: Develop a hobby to help build resilience

As an entrepreneur your life is most likely pretty hectic. Owning a business isn’t a 9-5 gig; instead, every day can feel like a Monday or Friday at the same time. But when was the last time you did something for you? I don’t mean habitually wasting time by creating illusions of being busy with social media. I mean picking something up for pleasure that is completely and utterly unrelated to work. A hobby in the truest sense of the word.

Most of us will say we’re “too busy”, but hobbies are important for many reasons other than building our positive emotion repertoire. In fact, they’re a way for us to become more efficient, not less! According to Parkinson’s law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, things take as much time as we have. If we don’t have anything planned all night, we’ll be more likely to work longer hours as a way to fill the space. If you have things planned throughout your night, it will create more time by making you more efficient.

How to develop a hobby that is right for you:

  1. Look to your past
    • Are there things you enjoyed doing as a kid that you might enjoy now? Maybe you were active in sports when you were young or loved sketching or painting or maybe you really enjoyed researching new music.
    • Or are there hobbies you may have started a while ago that you could pick up again now?
  2. Browse around
    • If you’re generally interested in art go take a walk around an arts supply store and see what jumps out at you. Try this with a number of stores/places to get your mind going, bookstore, sporting goods store, auto shop, furniture shop, etc.
  3. Find a hobby that fits
    • This can be tricky but think about the things you already like and how you could expand on them. If you find that you love going to restaurants for dessert, maybe try baking some yourself at home. If you love being outdoors around flowers and plants, maybe build out your garden or expand your plant collection in your home.
  4. Find resources to help
    • Once you’ve found a hobby try to offset the discomfort of trying something new through the use of resources. There are plenty of apps out there to get you started with things like guitar lessons, learning how to draw, learning a new language, or even for becoming a bird enthusiast. Whatever hobby you take interest in, there are most likely resources to help you get started.
  5. Schedule
    • One way to get going with a hobby is to carve out some time to devote to it. This idea is often referred to as implementation intentions, and when you consciously set an intention to do something, you’re far more likely to actually achieve or do it.
  6. Start small
    • Just like with anything, start out with a small hobby. When tasks are too big it becomes easier for us to lose interest so start out with a small project at first and then work your way up! To start, set aside 30 minutes one night a week.

Hobbies will develop your sense of adventure, interest, and curiosity. Having a hobby that is unrelated to your day-to-day work will expand your knowledge base and help you develop new ways of coping with stress and anxiety, thus in turn building resilience and breaking you out of the failure cycle.


Activity #6: Build resilience by trying 4 new things

Developing our sense of interest can be hard, especially when we don’t schedule the time or try out new things. The following can also be a great way to kick-start a new hobby!

This is exactly what this activity is for:

  1. Over one month schedule an hour block once a week
  2. During this block try one thing you have never done before
    • This can be something you’re interested in or something small you’ve always wanted to learn about but have never gotten around to doing. For example, organize/plan a day to be a tourist in your city based around your interests. Depending on where you live, there are probably many tourist sites you’ve never seen! This can be especially fun when you have someone coming in to visit. When experiencing this new activity, give yourself some breathing room to reflect throughout. In other words, actively engage in what you’re doing and try to connect it with other things in your life.
    • This will get you thinking more, adding layers to your identity and richness to your self-concept.

Discovering new things will create a sense of curiosity. Try to complete this activity 1-2 months per year. Having an active life will leave you feeling more inspired. Who knows what other passions you may find along the way.

Remember, the brain gets you caught in the failure cycle because of its immediate focus on the survival-based negative emotions. By engaging in curious thriving-based behaviors, and trying out new things, you’re effectively convincing your brain that there’s no need to worry about surviving the short-term; that instead the focus now is on long-lasting personal growth and deeply meaningful exploration.


Building resilience recap and wrap-up

Building resilience and overcoming failure is an invaluable skill. No matter the size of failure we come across, it can have serious repercussions on our productivity, drive and ability to cope in future adversities. Following these steps will set you on your way to replacing the negative emotions brought on by failure with more ‘thriving’ positive ones. Let’s take a look at what we’ve covered:

Methods to building resilience with positive emotions

  • Cultivate lasting joy by:
    • Keeping track of three funny things
    • Taking the time to ‘play’ more
  • Foster secure contentment through:
    • Guided imagery to get you into a relaxed state of mind
    • Method acting technique to re-live positive emotions
  • Grow sustainable interest by:
    • Developing new hobbies
    • Taking the time to try out new things

By implementing these actions throughout your day you’ll be well on your way to building resilience for your mind. Over time, you’ll find that failure won’t take you down this negativity spiral. Instead your repertoire of positive emotions will allow you to broaden your experiences, build lasting personal resources, and thrive for a long time to come.