Humans (Including You) are Strong, Resilient, and Adaptable

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“I don’t believe everything happens for a reason,” I repeated.

“But you’re a life coach!” my friend shouted back incredulously.

“Yes, and I don’t think everything happens for a reason.  It isn’t a requirement to be a coach.”

What I do believe, I explained, is that most humans are strong, resilient, and adaptable, that we find ways to get through and make the best of situations.  We make lemonade (or limoncello) from lemons, find the silver lining, and make Post-It notes from failed experiments.  We find new purposes, create meaning, and discover new ways to enjoy life even when things go horribly wrong.  Since being shot, Gabrielle Giffords has found a new normal and become a leading advocate for gun-control; like Christopher Reeve, one of my high school art teachers continued to enjoy an active, happy life after becoming paraplegic.  Millions (billions?) of people have recovered and moved forward after natural and man-made disasters.  In your own life, think about the unwanted developments you, your family, and friends have recovered from— not getting into the preferred school or getting the desired job or promotion; being fired or laid off; a book or business idea that did not work out; romantic break-ups, lost friendships, deaths; body- and life-altering disease and disability (permanent or temporary); assaults, robberies, the loss of security and stability.

Humans’ amazing adaptability is why so many people say they wouldn’t change things even if they could.  And why even people like me—who would do things differently if we could go back—can still be happy and at-peace with our current lives.

Does our healing, happiness, and growth mean that everything happens for a reason, just as it should?  Not in my mind.  I still think there is much randomness, good luck, and bad luck in the world.  I believe the ability to persevere speaks to the strength of our innate desires: to be happy and loved; for our lives to have meaning; to make a positive impact.  We want to live—We don’t want to just have a pulse and exist; we want to experience, create, connect, and be part of something larger than ourselves.  Thankfully, we are naturally wired to find ways through the obstacles, hurts, and losses—and can strengthen those instincts through training and practice.  We are stronger and more adaptable than most of us think we are.  If we couldn’t adjust, rebuild, and find a way to get up after being knocked flat on our backs, humans would have gone extinct long ago.

Victory in Europe Day (marking the Nazis’ surrender) was last week and I just saw a production of the play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” so the Holocaust is on my mind.  Many Holocaust (and other genocide) survivors are examples of incredible resilience and fortitude.  After surviving extreme loss, deprivation, and humiliation, after experiencing the depths of human depravity, many lived long lives with joy, purpose, meaning, and faith.  Even in the attic, the Franks and van Pels (aka, van Daans) had moments of joy and a deep friendship grew between Anne and Peter van Pels.  It seems incredible, and yet tens of thousands of individuals have done it.  (If you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, I recommend adding it to your reading queue.)

Humans’ ability to thrive despite apparently life- and soul-crushing hardships is where my faith in my clients comes from.  I believe most individuals, and especially individuals who choose to work with a coach, are strong, resilient, and primed for growth.  Sometimes we need time to grieve, be angry, and heal wounds, but then we come out of the cave and live on—not just trudging through the days, but engaged, active, and happy.  Some things permanently change us, some wounds never fully heal and periodically knock us back a bit, but still we move forward.

So no, I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but if believing that helps my friend access inner strength and resilience, that’s fine too.  When I begin working with clients, I ask them to describe the most useful, empowering aspects of their beliefs; as long as those ideas help them move forward while respecting other beings, I am happy to use whatever words they prefer.  One of my “adopted” grandmother’s says that with God’s help, she can get through anything.  Her 90+ years of life have included great hardships and heartbreak, and yet she is truly joyful and grateful (and humble), even now, with her body and mind failing.  She is a role model for me.  My granny believes in God’s support; my friend believes in some universal order; I believe in individual and community strength.  In affect, the differences are smaller than the words suggest; we all agree that we have the strength and resources to persevere, change, adjust, and enjoy a meaningful life.

Related Materials

 Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness

We adapt to situations—good and bad—much more than we suspect; that’s why paraplegics and lottery winners are about equally happy a year after their life-changing event.  We often believe the happiness we come to after accommodating to the non-ideal reality (like paralysis) is somehow “synthetic,” fake, and not as good as the “real” happiness we experience when we get exactly what we wanted.  Wrong.  A few quotes from Dan’s entertaining Talk:

  • Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.
  • A recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
  • When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless, and we’re cowardly.


Why do patients often deviate from their advance directives?” By Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband

In accord with Dan Gilbert’s findings, researchers discovered that patients often deviate from the preferences stated in their living will “because they cannot accurately imagine . . . how much they can endure in a condition they have not yet experienced.”  Even as their physical health declined, many people still rated their quality of life as good:

[People ignore] how much will stay the same and still can be enjoyed.  . . .  People [also] generally fail to recognize the degree to which their capacity to cope will buffer them from emotional suffering. The often unconscious processes of denial, rationalization, humor, intellectualization and compartmentalization are all coping mechanisms that patients employ to make their lives endurable, indeed, even fulfilling, when ill.


Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend

Stress does not have to be bad; how you think about it and how you act determine if it is bad or good for your health.  The studies she cites provide good evidence.  And really, couldn’t changing your perspective to see stress as helpful also reduce stress and anxiety?  Two quotes from her Talk:

  • [Stress] is my body helping me rise to this challenge.
  • Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. . . . Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.


Stress is Not Your Enemy” by Tony Schwartz

While chronic stress is unhealthy, periods of stress/hard work followed by periods of deep rest help us grow.  Quotes from the blog:

  • Subjecting yourself to stress is the only way to systematically get stronger.
  • Most of us instinctively run from discomfort, but struggle equally to value rest and renewal. We operate instead in a gray zone, rarely fully engaged and rarely deeply relaxed.
  • Increasing the amplitude of your wave — from intense effort to deep renewal — is the surest path to a more fully realized life.


Photo courtesy of Ed Gregory at

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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  • Hebergement web

    Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

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