When life goes south, why do some grin and bear it and emerge with greater wisdom, while others scream for their mommies as they are being led away?

Those who are chanting “Free Paris,” and even those who are calling for the heiress’s head on a platter, might stop to consider such a question. Certainly, psychological researchers are keenly interested in this subject as it helps them understand why some survive, even thrive, in adverse circumstances, while others-as one friend of mine is fond of saying-get “blown away in [their own] crapstorm.”

Michael Seabaugh

The employees of Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) may be able to help out here. In 1981, IBT went through a massive downsizing, laying off half its 26,000 employees in one year’s time. Researchers from the University of Chicago were studying 400 managers and executives at IBT and then continued their study for six years after this turn of events. The resulting landmark study revealed that two-thirds of the employees were negatively impacted by the layoffs, suffering in job performance, as well as stress-related health declines such as heart attacks, depression, strokes, and substance abuse. However, the remaining third managed to thrive even though the disruption to their lives was the same.

Why did this hardy one-third escape these awful fates? Another intriguing question to come out of this study is whether “hardiness” is a trait that some are fortunate to win from the genetic lottery-or is it something gained through psychological work?

The authors of the study found three organizing attitudes that were instrumental in separating the resilient from the non-resilient:

Commitment. The resilient folk made an ongoing effort to stay involved and engaged instead of giving in to feelings of isolation.

Control. The attitude of being in control kept them active, not passive and powerless, and helped them feel like they could actually impact the outcome.

Challenge. Any stressful situation was viewed as an opportunity to learn something new and helpful.

An attitude of staying committed, being in control, and welcoming challenge: The three C’s of staying resilient in the face of life’s inevitable hardships.

As for whether or not we are born with it-like Ms. Hilton, with her millions and fabulousness-or develop it through experience, the American Psychological Association offers an opinion: “Resilience is not a trait people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

The folks at American Psychological Association also identify five different skills that can contribute to greater resilience and none of them require a certain marker on the DNA.

Check them out and see where you stand with them:

1. Establish supportive relationships within and outside the family that model resilience.

2. Create the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.

3. Grow a positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.

4. Develop skills in communication and problem solving.

5. Grow the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Paris, are you paying attention?

By the way, I certainly don’t mean to be unnecessarily hard on our little Paris. I know enough to understand that being the number-one

billionaire heiress in America is no guarantee for living on the taut trampoline of life. Bouncing back from adversity requires harder work than developing the ability to drive a Bentley while drunk. It was reported that Paris has evidently found her inner Angelina, exhorting all of us to turn our attention to dealing with the Iraq War. That’s good advice, and probably a good shift in focus for Ms. Hilton, But, I do hope she will find the opportunity in this personal crisis to develop the above skills of hardiness-and not just so she can party hardy when she is set free.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at healthspan@mac.com and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information on the topics covered in this column.


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