What does it mean to be resilient?


Resilience is a term used so frequently that some have argued it has lost all meaning. To provide one example, Paul Sehgal (2015) wrote that the usage of the term “resilience” across contexts, such as individuals, communities, and companies have rendered it empty and without clear meaning. He arguably has a point. How often have you heard the sports announcer proclaim that the winning team was resilient tonight in overcoming a huge deficit? Or, the story of the individual highlighted on the nightly news overcoming adversity in their life?

That being said, unlike Sehgal, we in fact view the term resilience to hold great meaning. It is admittedly true there is no one universal definition of resilience. Honestly, it would be futile to attempt to pin down one “true” definition of resilience. Luthar and colleagues (2000) refer to resilience as being “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity (p. 1)”. Masten (2015) defines resilience as “the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten the viability, the function, or the development of that system (p. 10)”. The most common and frequently used definition in the resilience literature in adulthood and old age defines resilience as “pertains to the ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event, such as the death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning” (p. 20, Bonanno, 2004).

Despite the differences across the numerous definitions of resilience, there are however two inherent core similarities. First, there is exposure to a significant adverse event. Second, there is the manifestation of positive adaptation despite this adversity. This adaptation can take many forms. Individuals may show little to no changes in their well-being or mental health. However, individuals may show a decline in well-being or mental health immediately following the adversity, with subsequent improvements to near-previous levels over time that is characteristic of recovery. The timing of this recovery is specific to the individual and can range from several months to several years. This is where definitions of resilience across literatures differs. The definition of resilience in the adulthood and old age literature is much more stringent with a recovery trajectory not being considered a form of resilience, whereas the developmental resilience literature considers recovery to be a form of resilience (Luthar et al., 2000; Masten, 2015; Rutter, 2012).

Ultimately, one could argue that Rutter said it best in his groundbreaking article in 1987 when he wrote that resilience is concerned with individual variations in response to risk (Rutter, 1987). Individuals who lose their spouse, or are diagnosed with cancer or become unemployed will collectively show a great deal of variation in the extent to which they are affected by and adapt following the adversity. That is, there is no one set pathway that an individual may follow. Research has continued to document these differences across individuals in how they respond to adversity (see Lucas et al., 2003, 2004). Based on this argumentation, one could argue that the goal of resilience research is to not just document that “resilience happens” but to understand and identify the protective and vulnerability factors that are associated with positive outcomes and can be harnessed in future preventive interventions (for discussion, see Luthar et al., 2000). In more recent articles, Rutter (2006, 2012) has expanded on these ideas by arguing that resilience is best defined in terms of individuals’ manifestation of relatively more positive outcomes than others who experienced the same adversity. He additionally asserted that there is no requirement that resilience should be defined as individuals exhibiting superior functioning in relation to the population as a whole (who did not experience the adversity).

Where does this leave us now? We have discussed various definitions of resilience, but have not settled on one definition in particular. In our view, this is ok, as resilience is a dynamic process. When thinking about resilience, there are several important things to keep in mind. First, resilience can take on many forms, i.e., there is no one way for individuals to be resilient; Individuals may show stable high levels of psychological functioning or show a substantial decline as a result of the adversity, followed by improvement to near-previous levels. Either constitutes resilience, with the timing of recovery varying across individuals. Second, resilience will differ based on the outcome or life area studied. This was exemplified by Infurna and Luthar (in press) who observed that the proportion of individuals displaying a resilient trajectory to spousal loss differed across the outcomes examined with 66%, 19%, 26%, 37%, and 28% showing a resilient trajectory for life satisfaction, negative and positive affect, general health, and physical functioning, respectively (see also, Luthar et al., 1993). When taking into account all five outcomes collectively, only 8% showed resilience across all outcomes examined, whereas 20% did not show a resilient trajectory. Third, the major focus should also be on the identification of protective and vulnerability factors that promote outcomes that are more positive. Again, these factors will vary across people and the type of adversity.

We hope that the research projects that arise from the Pathways to Character Project will help illuminate and provide clarity to some of these important issues pertaining to the ways that adversities have the potential to shape the course of development across individuals.

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the John Templeton Foundation.



Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely adverse events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.

Infurna, F. J., & Luthar, S. S. (in press). The multidimensional nature of resilience to spousal loss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychological science, 15(1), 8-13.

Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development71, 543-562.

Luthar, S. S., Doernberger, C. H., & Zigler, E. (1993). Resilience is not a unidimensional construct: Insights from a prospective study of inner-city adolescents. Development and Psychopathology5, 703-717.

Masten, A. S. (2015). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. Guilford Publications.

Rutter, M. (2006). Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1094, 1-12.

Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 316-331.

Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology24, 335-344.

Sehgal, P (2015, December 1). The profound emptiness of ‘resilience’. The New York Times. Retrieved from