Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges

Steven M. Southwick, Dennis S. Charney

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

63 Scopus citations


For much of the 20th century, esteemed psychologists and psychiatrists studied what’s wrong with us. They seem to have been driven mostly by an interest in the negative: nervous breakdowns, anxiety, depression and misery. Freud glowered misanthropically at our sexual hang-ups from behind the couch. B. F. Skinner sourly advised us to live beyond freedom and dignity. These attitudes exerted influence far beyond those in the field. “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable,” confessed Woody Allen, whose Freudian analysis was rendered in countless New Yorker cartoons. “The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else.” In recent decades, a new idea has swept through the laboratories of academic psychology and psychiatry. Instead of the cramped old models of human pathology, let’s study what’s right with us. What makes people healthy, optimistic and resilient? Why are some of us able to affirm life? How do we retain the capacity to feel joy even in the face of Mr. Allen’s two options? Strikingly foreshadowed by Freud’s closest associate, Otto Rank, who broke with the master because he thought Freud failed to understand creativity and art, academic psychology and psychiatry today have turned toward the positive. More than 80 years ago, in Art and Artist, Rank advocated the “volitional affirmation of the obligatory”: saying Yes to the Must. No more powerful statement of resilience has been uttered since Nietzsche and Emerson. Steven Southwick, a psychiatrist at Yale, and Dennis Charney, dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, have written a crisp, user-friendly guide to the latest scientific research on resilience. With a light touch, they illuminate what seems to be every major study in the field over the last 20 years. In reading this short book, one can come away with much like a Ph.D. or M.D. in the new science of resilience. Recovering from catastrophes isn’t wishful thinking. It’s done by ordinary people. And by following the wisdom in this excellent review of the scientific literature, we too can learn how to become more resilient. “Learning to use the mind, as opposed to having the mind use you,” Southwick and Charney counsel, “is one of life’s most challenging tasks.” Yet rigorous evidence proves that we can train our brains and bodies to perform well even in the direst situations. In other words, we can learn how to say Yes to the Must. One example Southwick and Charney relate in the book is that of Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot whose emergency landing in the Hudson River in January 2009 astonished the world when he recovered flawlessly after his plane’s collision with a flock of geese disabled both engines. A latter-day Gary Cooper, Sully shrugged off his heroism: “I did not think I was going to die. Based on my experience, I was confident that I could make an emergency water landing that was survivable. That confidence was stronger than any fear.” Dozens of others in this book express the same kind of confidence and earthy wisdom that Sully conveyed. Packed with cameos of people who have survived and even thrived after traumas like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, incest, kidnapping and rape, combat, prisoner-of-war camps and accidents that blow off your legs, the book is a compendium of courage. Sully’s actions in January 2009 reflect what Donald Campbell and his colleagues, experts in resilient leadership at the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point, are discovering in their scientific research: “Rather than seeing themselves as victims of a terrible and mindless fate, resilient people and groups devise ways to frame their misfortune in a more personally understandable way, and this serves to protect them from being overwhelmed by difficulties in the present.” This concept “appears over and over again in the literature on resilience,” note Southwick and Charney, who are themselves major contributors to the scientific research on saying Yes to the Must. Clinicians of all kinds - psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists - should appreciate this splendid work, which general readers too will find of interest. The appendix provides useful information about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though the public seems little aware of it, the U.S. Defense Department has spent tens of millions of dollars on research to better understand ways of preventing and treating PTSD. Today, escalating research on resilience in war fighters, a bitter fruit of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is likely to transform the way that PTSD sufferers, both civilian and military, are treated in the decades ahead.

Original languageEnglish
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages323
ISBN (Electronic)9781108349246
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018


Dive into the research topics of 'Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this