Book review: The Resilience Factor

Karen Reivich, PhD & Andrew Shatte, PhD

2002, Three Rivers Press

Reviewed by Jane Freeman-Brown

Senior Adviser, Office of the Chief Psychologist

Reviewer biography

Dr Jane Freeman-Brown is the former Senior Advisor in the Corrections National Office Psychology Team and has been registered as a Clinical Psychologist since 2004. She completed her PhD and Post-graduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology at University of Otago and is currently completing a Masters in Bioethics and Health Law via distance learning with the University of Otago.

“I’ve had many catastrophes in my life, some of which have actually happened.”

Mark Twain

My interest in this book came long before I had even read it. Hearing that a principal psychologist at the Department of Corrections had bought individual copies for all members of his staff made me think there must be something special about it. After all, it is normal to have one office copy of a book. Having eight copies in one office might suggest that the secret to life had actually been discovered. I needed to get my hands on it. And since reading The Resilience Factor I have gone on to recommend it to so many people that it is a shame that I do not have shares in the Three Rivers Press publishing house.

The Resilience Factor is 342 pages long and thus not a coffee table type of book – nonetheless it offers substance and respect to the reader’s intellect, rather than being a collection of clichéd self-help statements. The authors have an approachable and humorous writing style and are not shy about stating things bluntly:

“When it comes to appraising ourselves, others, and situations, we are downright shoddy scientists.” p.55

If we are to withstand the detrimental effect of real or perceived stress then physical and mental resilience is required. But how does this happen? Are we born with a fixed capacity for resilience? Or is it something that can be learned? How come some people seem to crumble under the slightest sign of stress and other people appear stoic and unflappable in even the direst circumstances? The key message of authors Reivich and Shatte is that resilience can be learned. The authors are American academics whose primary research focus is on resilience and optimism. They take a cognitive-behavioural approach that the skill set they advocate can increase resilience, and, in line with the modern world’s obsession with finite lists, claim that there are seven keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. These seven strategies form the bulk of the chapters in the book, before the authors apply them to three settings in life that particularly benefit from increased resilience: relationships, parenting and work.

An integral section of the book is a section on realistic optimism. This is where the empirical basis to the book really shines and why it will outlive its ‘pop psychology’ rivals. Whilst some self-help books provide the literary equivalent to cheerleading, The Resilience Factor discusses how to maintain a productive and hopeful outlook by believing that good things may happen and are worth pursuing, but that effort, problem solving and planning are needed to bring these about.

Frequently, sections in the book are precipitated by a relevant literary quote. Rather than being clichéd statements the quotes are thought-provoking and relate well to the topic at hand. For example, the following DH Lawrence quote from 1928 was used to introduce a section on ‘resilience in life’, where the authors talk about life in America following the aftermath of September 11, 2001:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Overall, The Resilience Factor delivers on its promise to find keys to discover inner strength and overcome life’s hurdles. It is not an instant gratification book, as the reader has to be willing to introspect and have the patience to go through the exercises of the predominantly cognitive strategies. However, it is worth the energy as the book’s suggestions are empirically based and practical.

Lastly, the cover of The Resilience Factor has a particularly striking visual representation of resilience. It shows a photograph of a lone tree on top of a tall craggy rock whose roots and trunk have been severely bent and warped through the perilous weather conditions. However, despite this, the tree has a stunning array of green leaves in the upper branches. The implication is simple: even in the toughest of circumstances, flourishing is possible.