We talk so much about resilience, but not enough about buoyancy
“Resilience” has become a buzzword. Books, articles and podcasts on the concept abound. It is widely believed to be among the most important character virtues we should cultivate throughout our lives and students should learn during their education. It is frequently described as a distinguishing characteristic of successful people. Its importance has been emphasised since Covid-19.
The use of “resilience” has become so broad that we are told it is the essential strength to endure everything from everyday difficulties to trauma. But there is surely a difference between the skill needed to endure day-to-day adversity and the one for overcoming the vicissitudes that risk ruining our lives. While we can speak of levels of resilience and related skills such as grit, it would be useful to enrich our conceptual repertoire with a skill that distinguishes between recovering from quotidian difficulties and trauma. This is where buoyancy is useful.
Resilience is robustness and adaptability in the face of adversity: the ability to resist being affected by difficulties, and when we cannot help being affected, “bouncing back” quickly. It is a character virtue, skill or strength — terms I’ll use interchangeably. It is associated with problem-solving skills, social competence, and a sense of meaning and autonomy, as well as well-being, functional capacity and quality of life. Research suggests that that it promotes good health and can improve performance and achievement. In his groundbreaking book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described resilience as “probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.”
Resilience occupies an important place in influential theories of flourishing. All major theories emphasize the importance of cultivating character virtues or strengths for flourishing, and resilience is sometimes included among the most significant of them. Plato and Aristotle argued that all virtues depend upon four “cardinal” virtues which constitute the foundation for all virtues. Among the cardinal virtues underpinning Aristotle’s account of flourishing or “eudaimonia” is fortitude, aspects of which may be picked out by resilience, as Tyler VanderWeele writes in an article putting forward the account of flourishing endorsed by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. That account includes character and virtue as one of its five domains for flourishing. Positive psychology, defined by its founders Martin Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi as the “scientific study of the conditions and processes that lead to human flourishing,” focuses on helping people to identify their “signature” character strengths and increase the use of these in their lives, as does the Penn Resilience Program, which is closely associated with positive psychology. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues distinguishes between four types of virtue in its neo-Aristotelian account of flourishing, one of which is “performance” or “enabling” virtues — those that enable us to manage our lives well. They describe resilience as “one of the most significant” performance virtues.
“Resilience” is used extremely widely, from political revolutionaries who recovered from torture to office workers whose work involves regular failure. An often cited example is Nelson Mandela, who, even after 27 years’ incarceration, 18 of which were spent in Robben Island Prison, notorious for its extreme torture of political prisoners during apartheid, continued campaigning against apartheid and became South Africa’s president. Another is the praise Gandhi received for the resilience he showed in recovering from fasting and mourning with greater determination.
A far more common and much less severe example is given by the Stanford Storytelling Project: working in a call center. Many of us reject all the sales pitches we receive from cold calls. A degree of resilience is required to succeed in telesales: persistent effort in the face of regular and probable failure.
There’s a huge gulf between these examples. We can distinguish between levels of resilience, but the psychological strengths needed for enduring persecution are far different to those for handling repeated frustration at not meeting sales goals. This points to the usefulness of distinguishing between resilience and a related skill, buoyancy.
Research on resilience in education refers to a kind called “academic resilience.” This construct refers to a student’s ability to adapt to and overcome major challenges and adversities in their education which could seriously impede their progress. Academically resilient students maintain high motivation and performance in the face of stressful conditions which pose a risk to their education, to the extent they might completely withdraw from school or university.
Academic resilience denotes high resilience in educational contexts. But far more common is the relatively mild adversity that students must overcome in their everyday lives, such as exam pressure and the blow from receiving poor grades. How can we account for such common experiences without broadening the concept of academic resilience? With the concept of buoyancy.
In their research on academic resilience, educational researchers Andrew Martin & Herbert Marsh argue that this does not cover students’ everyday experiences of adversity. They developed the construct of “academic buoyancy” for “everyday academic resilience”: the ability to overcome setbacks, challenges, pressures and difficulties encountered in day-to-day school and university life. Buoyancy covers common and relatively insignificant adversity; resilience covers rare and significant adversity which threatens a student’s entire education.
Research has not yet shown how exactly the two are related. Martin and Marsh suggest that academic buoyancy may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for academic resilience: that is, you can be buoyant without being resilient and you must be buoyant to be resilient, but buoyancy does not guarantee resilience. The relation between buoyancy and resilience may therefore be like the relation between resilience and grit: as psychologist Angela Duckworth, who coined the notion of grit, says, “part of what it means to be gritty is to be resilient,” but this is “not the only trait you need to be gritty.”
Martin and Marsh’s research has shown that developing academic resilience and buoyancy can improve students’ well-being, chances of success, and positive connections to school and university life. They argue that buoyancy is important because students should build the skills to cope throughout their education such that resilience is rarely needed. Buoyancy, the ability to deal with minor adversity, can prevent it becoming major. Buoyancy plays the role of a student’s first line of defense against adversity, with resilience functioning as the “backline,” to be relied on only when experiencing significant adversity.
The distinction between these skills would be useful if applied more widely. Beyond education, we could define “buoyancy” in general as robustness and adaptability in the face of everyday adversity. “Resilience,” however, is robustness and adaptability in the face of strong adversity: trauma, tragedy, threats or significant stress that most of us are fortunate to not encounter often. Buoyancy is the skill needed by most telesales personnel, persevering to achieve goals where failure is likely. Mandela and Gandhi, by contrast, were extremely resilient.
Buoyancy serves an important role in our lives. We all need much resilience, but we also need much buoyancy.
Jonathan Beale, Ph.D., is a Research Affiliate at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and a Peak Performance Coach for the Flow Research Collective. He has previously held positions as Fellow in Philosophy at Harvard, Academic Visitor at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and Researcher-in-Residence at Eton College. His research focuses on the philosophy of human flourishing, its role in education and how to best support the flourishing of students. He is co-editor of four books on philosophy and education, including The Future of Education: Reimagining its Aims and Responsibilities (Oxford University Press, 2023). He has published articles in academic journals and media outlets including the New York Times. He co-hosts a podcast on flourishing, Flourish FM, sponsored by the Human Flourishing Program and the Department of Education at Oxford.
Beale’s latest article on resilience and flourishing (co-authored with Iro Konstantinou) is forthcoming in Marci Cottingham, Rebecca Erickson & Matthew Lee’s co-edited book Transcending Crisis by Attending to Care, Emotion, and Flourishing (Routledge, 2023). The penultimate draft can be read here.