Timothy (not his real name) was a real person. Early on he had the presence of mind to leave his family and turn his life in a different way. Two longitudinal resilience studies indicate important reasons why Timothy may have been successful in his bid for a flourishing life. The first, by Emily Werner and Ruth Smith, looked at a cohort of nearly 700 male and female individuals across their age-span from perinatal to age 40. It was conducted on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. The second, conducted by George Vaillant, followed more than 450 men from poor, high crime neighborhoods in Boston, MA and more than 260 Harvard men, for more than 50 years.
Here are some of the important findings of both these studies that predict resilience and recovery from high-risk childhood, and success as adults:
- Resilient siblings of dysfunctional families withdraw from family members enmeshed in problems. In this case, only Timothy escaped the patterns which led seven other siblings (two others died in childhood) to repeat the troubled lives of the parents.
- Resilient people have a caring adult in their lives. This person does not have to be related to the young person. Timothy accepted charity and met a trustworthy, caring adult.
- Resilient people develop and value personal competence and determination. In fact, this is considered one of their most effective resources by resilient adults looking back to their at-risk childhood. Timothy made a plan to leave and did not look back.
- Resilient people show a strong capacity to work, even in childhood. This is a strong predictor of career success and out-predicts the negatives of poverty or a multi-problem family. Capacity to work also predicts satisfying interpersonal relationships and good mental health in adulthood. Timothy was never without work from the time he was 15 years old.
- Resilient people set goals for their adult life, even when they are children. They focus on career or job success, self-development and self-fulfillment. They strive for a happy marriage to a spouse who is a source of support and with whom they will have children, and aspire to owning a home. Timothy and his wife were married for 52 years, and owned several homes of increasing value during this time.
- Resilient people set high expectations for their children. These include school achievement, higher education attainment, happy families of their own, and the clear expectation that they will do things the right way, not the easy way. All of Timothy’s children were expected to perform well in school, acquire a post-secondary education, and marry and have families, which they did, happily.
- Resilient people believe that failures will happen, but that you can always try again. Note that in the language of explanatory style, resilient people are not optimists—they don’t expect good things—but they do have high self-efficacy and take a long view when bad things do occur. That long view may have resulted in Timothy’s 52-year marriage and 19-year cancer survival.
- Resilient people are active in community service. Timothy gave back for years and years to support youth and young adults in areas that mattered deeply to him—the military and the church. In George Vaillant’s model of adult development, Timothy successfully negotiated the “six sequential tasks.”
- Identity—separate from parents
- Intimacy—psychologically healthy involvement with a partner
- Career Consolidation—find work valuable to society, and both valuable and enjoyable to self
- Generativity—broadening social circle, providing care for the next generation
- Becoming Keeper of the Meaning—pass on traditions that link the past to the future
- Integrity—achieving peace and unity with one’s self and the world.
Each of these broad categories is likely supported by applications we know and love in the Learn & Flourish toolbox, such as good decision-making, effective habits, goal-setting, grit, deliberate practice, active constructive responding, the T-E-A Cycle™, a strong social circle, a connection to something larger than oneself, and the like.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Timothy’s life is that we are not doomed from birth to live out lives of failure. Quality longitudinal research shows us that by middle age, and with a combination of supports above in place, regardless of their beginnings in life, most people can flourish.
Shenk, J. W. (2009), What Makes Us Happy? The Atlantic (July, 2009).
Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Werner E. E. & Smith R. S. (2001). Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Werner E. E. (2002). Looking for trouble in paradise: some lessons learned from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. In Phelps E, Furstenberg FF, Colby A. Looking at Lives: American Longitudinal Studies of the 20th Century., pp. 297-314. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Chapter 9 in the PPND book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves, is based on this article.