Predicting 2017's Word of the Year: Resilience

January 3, 2017 Justin Keller

Every year the Oxford Dictionary puts a new word in the dictionary. This word is typically reflective of some broader phenomenon in society. We learned what “vaping” was in 2014. 2015 was the year of the “emoji.” 2016’s wild ride (sadly) left us with “post-truth.”

Looking back, 2016 was full of the unexpected. Ebola came back. Many of our favorite (and seemingly healthy) entertainers suddenly passed away. The Chicago Cubs won the world series. Guns N’ Roses got back together. Britain voted to leave the EU. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar. Donald Trump was elected president. I’m not putting labels of good or bad on these things; I’m simply saying that few people saw these things coming.

Most of these have lasting implications and portend even more unpredictability going into the next year. Are we going to meet aliens? Are the Cleveland Browns going to win the Super Bowl? Am I going to win the lottery while simultaneously being struck by lightning and being attacked by a bear? If 2017 is anything like last year, the answer to all those things is: definitely maybe.

So I’ve got a prediction for 2017’s word of the year: RESILIENCE.

I know, I know. This word already exists in the Oxford (and every other) Dictionary, so it won’t be newly inducted in 2017. However, I’m sure that “resilience” is a word you’re going to hear over and over in 2017. Here’s what it means:

  1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity
  2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy

Sounds like a much-needed trait in all of us right? If 2017 is going to bounce us around like a pinball the way 2016 did, we’re going to need all the resilience we can get. Here’s some good news: Resiliency can be trained. And we’re going to need to train really hard if we’re going to keep our heads up going into a tumultuous future. Here are some easy ways to increase your own resilience.

First, let’s look at the neurobiology of resilience. Two scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Yale School of Medicine, in cahoots with the NIH, ran a fascinating study on resilience. They looked at how people with high stress jobs (in this case, soldiers) react to stimuli different than a control group. They ran an experimental betting game and watched the dopamine levels when people lost. In the control group, there was a quick drop in their dopamine levels. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure center– it’s that thing in our brains that says, “yeah, that felt good.”) The soldiers, however, maintained steady levels of dopamine. Similar things happened with their prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain referred to as “the seat of rational thinking.” The control group’s PFC showed low activity, while the soldiers demonstrated strong activity, meaning the soldiers’ brains were extra good at rationalizing and staying calm. What was it about these soldiers that made them so resilient?

The researchers found ten traits strongly associated with the ability to build resilience:

  • Facing fear
  • Having a moral compass
  • Drawing on faith
  • Using social support
  • Having good role models
  • Being physically fit
  • Making sure your brain is challenged
  • Having “cognitive and emotional flexibility”
  • Having “meaning, purpose and growth” in life
  • “Realistic” optimism

They also found a tool that helps to train nearly all of those traits. Spoiler alert: it’s mindfulness training. Things like deep breathing exercises designed to improve conscious awareness, body scans to sense tension and calm it down and detecting “inaccurate thoughts” to ease anxiety all lead to increased resilience.

Another study conducted at the University of Exeter found that a mindfulness curriculum had significant results on increasing resilience and wellbeing. It’s good that each person became more resilient, but what’s amazing is that, the whole group did too. This training shifted the whole bell curve of resilience to the right!

Now imagine that– if everyone had a little more emotional and physical regulation, a little more present awareness– how massive would the impact on daily life be… for all of us? We don’t often realize it, but our actions can often ripple out and affect others. Reducing the turbulence of any negative ripples just a little can profoundly shift an environment– whether it’s an office, a school or an entire country.

Resilience is something you can practice and train on your own, but pretty quickly transfers into the attitudes and behaviors of others. If you’re mentally fit, happy and positive, the scientific research behind mirror neurons (reflecting what you are experiencing) suggests that others will recognize that and take cues too. So let’s get started and show 2017 who’s boss.

The word for 2017 is RESILIENCE.  

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