Dr. Michael Ungar shares insights from his decades-long research into resilience to reveal that it’s not about your ruggedness, but rather your resources.
- The true key to resilience
- A master checklist for upgrading your resilience
- How to change your mood by changing your environment
Dr. Ungar is a Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he holds a national Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. Dr. Ungar has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the subject of resilience and is the author of 15 books for mental health professionals, researchers, employers and parents. These include Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, a book for adults experiencing stress at work and at home.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Michael’s Book: Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success
- Michael’s Websites: michaelungar.com and resilienceresearch.org
- Movie trailer: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
- Personality: Brene Brown
- Principle: Collective Impact
- Book: “Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything” by Chris Hadfield
- Study: Adverse Childhood Experience Studies
- Previous episode: 412: Access Superpowers by Embracing Alter Egos with Todd Herman
Michael, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
My real pleasure, Pete. Nice to be here.
Well, I learned that you have built three houses and raised five children, but you said that building the houses was easier. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, for sure. Let’s just say that houses are kind of like children, they change your life, they improve the quality of your life, and your experience in the world, and they make you calmer, they make you happy, and all these kinds of other things. But they also stay put, right? They don’t sort of like change, or at least they’re not supposed to unless there’s a flood or something.
And kids are a little different. Having raised five, they don’t always sort of, for some reason, they aren’t always inspired by my advice. I can’t understand why that would be, but at least when you put a wall up and you actually hammer a nail in, or you get a stud wall up, it kind of stays there. And there is something pretty satisfying about building whatever, any kind of arts or craft or whatever.
Now, so when you built these three houses, that means like you did everything. That’s impressive because you’re also a mental health powerhouse, these are very different skills.
Yeah, the houses were different ones. Some of them were just like seriously 90% reno kind of things. One of them, literally, we chopped, we cut the wood down off of a wood lot that my father-in law had, and milled the wood, and literally skited it out of the forest, and built the house with it. And I had a master carpenter, I don’t have all the skills. But I hired a master carpenter, and was kind of funny. Some days I was his boss in terms of making decisions, and the next day I was just basically the laborer on the job site and he was literally telling me, “Nail that board, and lift that log, and do exactly as I tell you.” So, it was really fun. It’s great.
I always find, too, that the more I sort of vary my activities, even my writing, I write fiction, I’ve written a novel, I’ve written for different audiences, and I find it’s the variety that actually keeps me sort of shocks my mind, awake, if you will. There’s something really wonderful about these different experiences.
Yeah, absolutely. And it seems like much of the research about creativity is just that. You’ve got deep expertise in one thing but you dabble in many things, and suddenly associations and ideas pop up, like, “Oh, this is a lot like nailing a board together.”
You do see patterns actually, and that’s what the richer your environment around you, the more people you sort of surround, even if you’re not an extrovert, there’s lots of ways sort of bringing those experiences to you if you’re just sitting on a park bench.
I travel the globe, and one of the most wonderful things I get a chance to do is actually just to walk around cities. I do take in some of the cultural events and all that, but often it’s just that sense of watching how architecture goes together or how people pattern their lives that remind you that there are so many different ways that people find pathways to success or put their lives together in ways that actually make sense.
And you begin to, like, if you’re in Japan. I mean, Japan looks a lot like where I live in North America, but the assumptions underlying those things are just so, so different, where leaving a tip at a restaurant can be an insult. Or when you get on a subway, taking your backpack off and putting it up on the tray sort of above the seat without any fear of it being stolen, it kind of shocks you into new ways of thinking about the world and many of your own sort of, well, certainly for me, things that I would just take for granted.
And I do find that, ultimately, especially when I write books, I think of ideas like resilience. I’m always sort of trying to sort of get my head out of standard thinking, and really see what really is happening. And that’s maybe the scientist in me.
Well, that’s cool. Well, so, could you orient us to a particular area of your expertise, which is resilience?
Yeah. Well, it’s been something, a big part of my research and my clinical work for the last, I’d say, two decades. It kind of has become just kind of boiling down to this idea that in the field of resilience, if you say to the typical person, “What do you think is resilience?” They tend to offer you that kind of idea of bouncing back, the personal transformation, that personal grit.
I feel like Rocky.
Yeah, like Rocky, which I love the movie, but it’s actually not what the science is actually saying. And most of the scientists in the area, the real people really looking at this, are actually telling us now that it’s not just about being a rugged individual. It’s also about being a resource individual. And that, in fact, most of what changes us, most of what gets us through a crisis, is actually not inside of us at all. The missing piece here is that what mostly gets us through is the resources around us.
If you look at even like the great superstars. You look at like a Ronaldo, a soccer star, you look at whatever. If you can kind of get close to them, what you’ll often discover is less about just how they keep their mindset perfect. But there’s always those wonderful stories of people who believed in them. Like, I always say this, if I’m going to talk to someone like Ronaldo, I’m going to want to ask him who gave him his first soccer ball. Like, who saw in him the potential to keep growing? All these aspects of our lives, and yet somehow are this conversation we often have about resilience.
In a very strange way always puts it right back on our own shoulders, that somehow if we just think, you know, have the right thoughts, show enough grit, have the right mindset, that we will succeed. And I hate to burst the bubble, but actually, as I sort of talk about in this book Change Your World, I’m sorry, the evidence is against you on that one. That is actually not the whole story. And so, that’s kind of what I’ve been looking at, what resilience comes from and all the different places around the world, including in North America, but what are the factors that make us resilient on the job, in our family lives, etc. like that.
You know, it’s intriguing as you’re talking about it. It’s less about sort of what’s inside your brain and more about your resources and your support group. I don’t know why, I’ve got this silliest line is coming to my head. It’s from an Andy Samberg movie, which is basically spoofing, I think, Justin Bieber’s life. And so, he’s a rock star, and he has all these people around him doing all these things. And he says, “It takes a village to make me look dope.” And it sounds like, in crass, silly terms, that’s kind of what you say.
But what’s even more fascinating is that it’s not just the relationships, which I think sometimes, again, people will, “Yeah, relationships matter a lot.” But it’s what the relationships, in a sense, bring us and all the other things. Well, people sometimes, I find sometimes when I’m working clinically that people are doing research in this area. People will come back to that, “It’s always got to be people,” and then if they don’t have people, if you’re kind of isolated, right, socially isolated, and you think, “I can’t be resilient.”
But, actually, I’ll give you an example. I was working clinically with a young woman who was a paralegal, came to my office on her lunch hour dressed to the nines, just completely put together. And by way of a social worker, a family therapist, I’m not sitting in the office with a suit and tie sort of thing. So, she always impressed me that way. But she was in an abusive, this really abusive relationship, and I could never quite reconcile, how this very put together confident young woman, who came into my office with that energy, could go home and just so let herself, in a sense, not let herself, but, I mean, be put in a very abusive situation.
And I know the psychology of this. I’m in the field. I’ve worked for many years. But what would change that? And we tried to get her to change her mindset, to change her thinking about her relationships, etc., but she’s still sort of had that sense that, “No, no, no, I’d be worse off with leaving the guy.” Anyways, very small, little change.
I, one day, asked her to go home, and, instead of changing her clothes as she came in the house, which is what she used to do, putting on the track pants and looking kind of just frumpy and normal and calmed or whatever, and then letting herself be abused by this guy verbally, she just didn’t change her clothes. She stayed in this office power suit, and it gave her that cue and, in a sense, it had enveloped her in an environment that cued her to say, “You are worth more than this guy.” And it dramatically changed the work that we did together.
That really started her on a path to changing really things that she got rid of the apartment, she left the guy in the apartment, he’s kind of moved in on her. She found the support from her friends to get her stuff out of the apartment. She talked to the police about how to do this safely, etc. And I was really impressed by what I’ve learned from her, which was that we can create around us these external cues that remind us how to be rugged. In a sense, the resources trigger the ruggedness.
And, in fact, this is what the science of resilience teaches us, that it’s the external world that literally changes how we think, how we attribute cause, what we believe we can do, and whether or not we’re actually going to realize our talents, whether or not it’s in the work world or in our family at home.
Well, that’s fascinating and a really inspiring story, and fun in terms of the implications that that can have in any number of context and lives. And we had Todd Herman on the show earlier talk about enclothed cognition, and sort of how indeed what you wear send signals and changes sort of your emotional state, and your capacity to even be effective in different contexts. So, what I’m digging about that is it’s just so darn actionable in terms of the clothes you choose to put on is a part of your environment that’s literally right on you.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, if it’s okay I can even take it a little bit further because people think, “Okay, I’ve got the clothing down.” But, of course, we know that, I mean, if you really want to know how to make yourself resilient, you’re also going to have to think even further afield. Like, housing, right? People often say, “Oh, you know, you need relationships. I want to be loved. I want to be mattered.” All these kinds of things.
And I get that, but then they put themselves into, say, small mini mansions, like very large houses where they might have a couple of kids, but the house is so large they can’t even find the kids much less call them for dinner.
It’s kind of interesting that our houses can actually change our mood, whether or not there’s green, green spaces outside that home, whether or not we connect to our neighbors, the way we lay out our streets, whether or not we push that big garage to the front of the yard and hide the house sort of back on the yard.
All of these decisions that we make that in and of themselves seem rather, well, mild, accumulate to stress us or tear apart the very patterns of relationships, the impromptu context that we have with our neighbors, the sense of community—coming back to me with Justin Bieber and the village. But when people begin to think about a whole list of things, and I do talk about that list. It is that how we setup our houses, how we have relationships. Whether or not people around us give us a powerful identity, whether or not the relationships that we want, we’ve actually setup environments to give those to us.
I’ll give a small example. I don’t know if you have a morning routine for a cup of coffee or whatever it is that you drink in the morning. But a lot of people often say to people, “If you’re feeling disconnected and alone, go back to the same coffee shop for three weeks at the same time, and you’ll suddenly get known.” A little bit like the chairs idea, right? You’ll walk in and you’ll be the double soy latte extra hot with foam sort of thing.
And bit by bit you’ll become connected into a pattern, a community. And, again, we can either tell you to go on a yoga retreat and get your mind together, or pay a high-priced guru, or something like that, but, in a sense, that’s not going to create a sustainable change, not unless you already have all these other relationships in place. And if you do, then you’re good. If you’re not, then the individual flipping the switch in your head is not going to be a sustainable change.
And that’s not just an opinion. That’s, unfortunately, what the research actually shows in terms of all those wonderful practices, where all that sort of self-help movement stuff that were preaching at people, it ain’t working.
Well, so, I’d love to hear, could you point to one or two or three of the most striking smoking gun studies that really support this paradigm?
Well, sure. Even if you just want to stick with Center for Disease Control sort of statistics, if you prefer, we know that overweight and obesity rates are rising in North America, both countries, in Canada and the United States, Mexico, etc. That’s the truth and then we’re going to actually see a decrease in people’s longevity as a consequence of that.
And that’s, at the same time, that we have this massive diet industry, and everyone has access to the internet to get good advice, and there’s more advertising, and more self-help movements, and more opportunities to sort of reflect and fix yourself. What about if, I don’t know, we can take different maybe medications for depression?
Again, you’d think with all the self-help out there that, in fact, depression rates would be going down and that medication use would be going down. And, in fact, it’s going in the opposite direction entirely. The same with anxiety disorders and who’s appearing at our emergency rooms, especially amongst our children.
All these statistics are pointing to the fact that despite this mammoth cornucopia, this smorgasbord of available self-help stuff, the problem is we’re so focused on the rugged individual that we’ve missed that, in fact, without understanding that we also have to be resource individuals, we are not going to get better. We are actually, potentially, going to make the situation worse.
Now, that’s tricky, certainly if you have ample information at our disposals, so to do some of that self-help stuff. And so, obesity, overweight is way up now as compared to before, and depression, anxiety also way up. So, I guess, then, that would follow that our environments have also become worse in terms of supporting a healthy weight, or a calm, tranquil, happy mental state. Could you sort of speak to some of those environmental factors at work there?
Well, some of the big ones that we know about are relationship breakdown. The irony, by the way, one good stat, if you’d like, divorce rates are going down, but that’s only because fewer and fewer people are actually marrying. That’s right. So, I hate to tell you this but it’s a good news/bad news story there.
So, if you think about those kinds of statistics, etc., you’re not necessarily seeing a great deal of change. Loneliness, for instance, would probably be the other big problem that we’re seeing. A huge number, something like one-quarter of US households have people living alone in them. And we’re not actually designed for that kind of lifestyle.
Now, the other side of that is that people, our kids are staying at home with us. And, culturally, there are some cultures that are probably, “That’s a good thing,” right? You don’t move out until you go and get married or something like that, and that’s just the family norm. Thankfully, for my own five children, that is not the family norm. They’re launching, so I can say that.
But you begin to look at loneliness, an inability to launch, in some cases, living in isolation. These are sort of structural things going on around us which are breaking down and, I think, not just I think, are actually showing up in our emergency rooms in our hospitals and, indeed, in our doctors’ offices where you’re seeing a spike in medications.
Intriguing. So, loneliness in and of itself is an indicator of a depleted environment or less resource now as it used to be. And what are some other ways that our environments are more bad?
Our environments are worse or toxic. They’re depleted more so now than before in the realms of supporting a healthy way, to a healthy emotional state.
Well, the thing is, of course, the evidence is now mounting about cellphone use, screen times, and the social isolation, and accumulative stress that that causes in our lives when we’re online and how we relate to other people when we’re online. We’re not in those relationships really are satisfying to us. In and of itself, using your cellphone, being online a bit is not going to be the problem. Having a rich Facebook community that you’re swapping photos with your neighbors and friends and family. This is not the problem.
The problem becomes when it’s just your only outlet or you’re really caught up in that sort of neurological ping of having more and more likes or that sort of social desirability that you’re looking for. It drives me nuts when I see people taking those selfies. You know, they’re sitting there in the coffee shop and they’re just kind of having a ho-hum day and their facial expression is kind of neutral. And then, suddenly, they want to pop a selfie, and they do this really weird little smirk off to the side, like somehow that social presentation has to be, “I can’t just be normal. I have to be upbeat.”
And if you do it once, that’s not a problem. But if that’s your whole lifestyle, you are going to be more stressed. It’s also not necessarily building the real substance of what we need, which is genuine, well, not just genuine relationships, but a sense of your culture, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.
I think part of this that also worries me, because I study resilience so you’re looking for patterns, and this could be on the job site or elsewhere, but you want people to feel like they’re making a really genuine contribution, a real contribution to some product, or some end goal, or mission statement. We are driven by that, whether it’s in our families. And, certainly, when I’m working with people in business settings and stuff, and you often say, “Well, if you’re not getting that from your work world…” then often what you want to ask people, “…are you finding these connections, this sense of meaningful participation in your community outside of your work world?”
And, yes, an audience will raise their hands and I’m sure listeners, too. People would say, “Do you volunteer? Are you a member of a religious organization?”
Oh, I do, yes.
But it’s not just the relationship that you’re going to enrich. You’re also going to get access to more advice, resources. I live in a part of the world, I’d like to joke, where I live, it’s a town of about 400,000 people and we’re casserole people, we’re Maritimers, we’re East Coasters. And if someone down the road breaks a hip, they get a casserole or two or three. And, obviously, if someone’s child is sick, they get a whole freezer-load of casseroles.
But that kind of stuff brings our communities together. And I’m going to argue that even if your job is not meaningful at work, if you’re coming home and cooking in casserole for the neighbor down the street, and your housing is setup, and you’ve been stable enough in your housing for long enough that you actually know that neighbor, then you’ve got a lot of advantages, a lot of environmental advantages that is actually going to carry you through.
Well, not only are you avoiding depression, which we know, but it’s also going to carry you through in terms of being safer, less opportunities to be exposed to violence, you might be even more active in a community like that. I even just saw, I recently read a study that said your mortgage rate might be lower as well because, of course, you’re swapping information with your neighbors, right? So, there’s massive financial, social, emotional advantages when we do things and feel connected to others. But also, in culturally meaningful ways.
Absolutely. And I can tell you, having recently our family given birth to two kids, under two, we appreciate getting a casserole.
It’s the equation of the household chaos, but much appreciated. So, that’s cool. Well, let’s really get into some of the actionable tidbits with regard to elements of your environment, and how to upgrade and build up those resources. We talked about clothing, we talked about housing, we talked about relationships. Could you maybe kind of lay out the kind of the master checklist and some of the best practices for upgrading those resources so we’ll upgrade our resilience?
Yeah, for sure. And I kind of list out 12 in Change Your World but I’m not going to go through all 12 because some of them are hitting here. But, essentially, obviously you need some structure, you want routine in your life, it carries you through periods of crisis. You want accountability. Put yourself in situations where people rely on you even if you’re just accountable to your dog to take them out for a walk. It’s that routine, it’s that sense of purpose in life that’s given to us by our environments.
You’re going to want, of course, relationships. But I always say, you don’t have to be loved, even though it sounds odd, but you do have to matter to somebody, and that’s often the tipping point that you see in studies of resilience. You have to have a powerful identity. There’s got to be something special about you. And, by the way, identity, let’s face it, it’s given to us, it’s not just homegrown in front of the mirror. It’s something that’s reinforced and given to us by others who say, “You are special at this.”
Power and control experiences. You really need that sense of efficacy, that sense that you can make a difference and make decisions that count in your life. What about fair treatment? It’s another that we often overlook. You know, if you’re not being treated fairly, if you hit the glass ceiling, or you’re feeling racially pushed aside, or your ethnicity is being disparaged, all these things accumulate in people’s lives and make it much more difficult to succeed especially when times get tough.
You need your basic needs met, all those kinds of things. You need a sense of your belonging somewhere in your community or your extended family. And, of course, you need things like, finally, yes, you need positive thinking. It does carry you through a tough period as well, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when you see all the other elements of that. And just basic financial. You need enough money and enough physical health to do the things that, frankly, matter to you.
But could I make that a little more concrete? That’s a heck of a list for people to digest, but let me give an example. I was doing some work with one of the worker’s compensation boards, and they were hearing a great story of a fellow who had injured himself on an oil rig. He was right down at the well head, doing really heavy hard labor, you know, paid well, very proud of that identity, a real rough and tumble sort of individual.
And he injured himself and he can never go back into that kind of heavy work. And too often, what we do with workers like that is we direct them into IT jobs, or some sort of a sales job, or something like that. But, very wisely, his case worker got him a job back in the oil patch, but not down in the heavy lifting area. Where he was, he was at the front gate, checking in and out the trucks as the supply trucks and as people came in and out of the yard.
Now, if you think about it, the fellow, he’s changed his identity from the sort of rough and tumble guy at the well head, but he’s still in the same industry. And what’s more is he’s still wearing a hard hat, he has a vest on with the flashy colors and everything else, he’s holding a checklist so he’s in control of things, he’s able to direct people. And when he goes to lunch, he’s still with the same people that he was hanging around with before. And when he’s at the bar, or wherever he goes on Saturday nights, and someone turns and says, “What do you do?” He says, “I’m in the oil industry. I’m in the oil and gas industry,” right?
Now, like, for me, that was an interesting lesson learned, that when you create continuity and you give someone back access to their, in a sense, almost their culture, a sense of purpose, you give them the same uniform, coming back to what we talked about in terms of dress codes and that type of thing, giving him decision-making power, there’s a real sense of power in his job as well, that’s a perfect transition for someone.
And you know what? They’re not going to leave that. They’re not going to experience that injury and then fall into depression and, God forbid, suicide or other kinds of things that sometimes follow when you see people who have gone through these really traumatic injuries on the job. So, when you begin to have this kind of it’s almost like a checklist or a code book, on how to make people more resilient, and as you go through it, we begin to see it. The more of those that you check, as I just did with the sort of the fellow in this hard hat, the more you check, the more likely you are to have success, especially when you hit a really difficult, almost like a time in your life you’re going to stumble.
Yeah, that makes some really good sense there with regard to keeping a lot of those things right there, identity is still there, relationship still there, a sense of belonging still there, and the relationships, they’re mattering, so accountability into some of the same kinds of folks, so the same structure routine, that’s pretty cool.
So, then, I’d love to get your take then, because that is a good size list, what’s your impression then, maybe specifically the context of professionals who hit some hard times maybe just because, “Oh, dear, I have to work 12 to 15 hours a week, for a few weeks in a row.” That’s exhausting. Or, “Oh, dear, now I’ve got the demands of job plus a sick child,” or, plus a sick parent. So, there’s some sort of plenty of work responsibility and then, suddenly, a whole lot more land. What are some of your top pro tips to get a really good bang for your buck in upgrading a key resource?
Well, that’s a great question. Indeed, you do see that problem of the sandwich generation, that’s probably a great example of that. So, if I learned anything from like literally interviewing hundreds of people, all the complex studies that we carry on, on these topics, I keep seeing a pattern of, well, maybe four simple steps that people go through in trying to figure out how to cope with a tough situation.
And, by the way, to be fair, it’s going to change depending on your risk exposure. So, that is probably the one kernel that we often forget. So, if you’ve got all of those supports, all the education, job stability, and a Visa card that’s not maxed out or a credit card that’s not maxed out, right? If you’ve got all that in place, then you can probably get through that situation you just described, right, because you’re going to have the resources, you can hire a nurse for your mother who’s ill, you can get your kid extra tutoring, you can hire a nanny to look after the house when you’re gone.
Like, you’ve got the infrastructure. So, the only thing you have to do, the first thing, I always encourage people, look at your risk exposure. Before you run to the next motivational guru, just ask yourself first, “How many real risks, how many real dangers, how many real threats am I experiencing in my life?” And then don’t expect that things are going to change if you’re under a lot of external stressors.
So, if you’re not under a lot of external stressors, then, frankly, change your mind, change your mindset, encourage more grit. I just listened to Brene Brown talk on her sort of being daring and courageous and these kinds of things. These are all great advice for us—when we have stability in our lives and that we also have some of, basically, we have healthcare, we have resources that allow us to be daring and all those kinds of other stuff.
So, one, get your mindset on. Change your heads. Absolutely, that’s your first strategy. Second strategy is, heck, if that’s still not quite enough, re-exploit the heck out of all the resources around you, right? Ask for help from your spouse, if that person is willing to step up. Demand that they step up. Ask your kids for a little bit of support, right, getting out of the house, or whatever, or helping with granny if she’s ill. Look to the professionals that you can tap in your community. Maybe tap into your savings if you have some. Do whatever you’re going to need. If you need timeout, pay for a vacation at that time. Do whatever it is that’s going to carry you through. Exploit the heck out of all those resources.
But I often find that the people I’m working with often are more stressed than that, that’s why they’re seeing a therapist often, or whatever. So, the third phase is, of course, you’ve got to create new resources, and that gets a little bit more tough. That means you go to work and maybe your boss is a real, whatever words you want to complete that with, that sentence.
Jerk face, there you go. And maybe you’re going to need new resources. If that’s not a place you can have it, true enough, I often see people, “You don’t have to quit your job,” which I hate. Well, I actually hate when I hear people tell people to quit their job and start over. I hate that advice because I live in an economy that were often quite depressed, and people don’t quit jobs. You’ve got a good job, and you’ve got your mortgage covered, you do not quit that job.
What you do is, if you’re really stressed by your boss in a really toxic emotional environment, you make a lateral move. You say to them, “Is there a special project that I can get reassigned to? Is there a change of hours or shifts that I can do?” to get on to a different shift or a different boss. “Can I do an extra workshop or something to train up on a separate skill? It won’t increase my pay but at least it gets me into a different part of the office building, or something like that.”
So, often it’s about changing the resources around us. People often say, “I don’t have time to exercise.” I say, “Well, actually, change your parking spot. Park farther from your office door, right? Decide where you’re going to park. Take a parking spot, if you’re going to have to pay for a spot, pay for one that’s three blocks away instead of one block away.” Remarkably small efforts like those can actually exploit the environment around you much better.
Find a friend, find a new person, find a new activity that you’re interested in and exploit that activity to network with a new group of people. Each of these, is basically saying, “I can expand my resources.” So, one, change your head, try to get your head on straight, exploit the resources around you. The second strategy, or the third strategy is build more resources if at all possible.
And, unfortunately, the fourth strategy I see with people, and this has to be said, you know, sometimes we’re in such tough situations that we cannot find more resources. In that case, the only thing we can do is change our expectations. And maybe we don’t need suc h a big house. Maybe we don’t need the second car. Maybe we aren’t going to go in that vacation that we’ve always dreamed of this year. And maybe our child is, frankly, still going to be sick tomorrow, and it’s still going to be a really, really crappy, burdensome life that we’re going to be living for the next foreseeable future. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy with high expectations.
And, in a sense, that brings you back to maybe changing your mindset, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. What that often says is that time is often on our side, that new resources, just through the serendipity of life, just the randomness of where we are and where we could move to, and as our child develops, or our parent passes away, if that’s where you’re at in life, what I’ve seen people do is suddenly new doors open and there are, in a sense, new resources that they can, if they’re able to, to pull those resources to them. Because if you have those resources outside of you, Pete, they will change you. And as we are a better resourced, we actually become also, in a sense, more rugged as individuals as well.
Right. Well, that’s so powerful to think through whatever your situation, and then to be able to go through each of those elements. And I’m thinking real-time about how even working with the challenge and have, you know, two kids that are two years old in the home all of a sudden, then we’re asking for some help for whether someone’s bringing in some food or grandparents are helping out, we’re spending some money, like someone is coming in from time to time to do a little bit of helping with the tidying and the food and the laundry, all the stuff, you know, the bottles upon bottles upon bottles.
And that really has made a cool difference, and then as well as changing the expectations. Like, “Hey, it’s not going to be tidy all the time. It’s a different game we’re in right now. And we’re okay with that.” So, but I’d love to hear, we’ve talked about changing your head. How in practice is that done?
Well, it’s often by putting ourselves in environments that compel the change. It’s funny, we often think right there it starts from inside, but actually it can actually start a lot from outside. I’ll give you a couple of funny little examples. A colleague of mine works on what’s called physical literacy, and he tries to get kids to move more, which is, “Oh, my gosh, we’re worried about that all the time as parents.” Two-year-olds move a lot. You’re not there yet, are you? But eventually they slow down, and then you want them to move more.
And this fellow, what he does is he went into an elementary school, and he put accelerometers on kids to see how much they’re moving and how fast they were moving. And then what he did was he went back on the weekend after he had his baseline measurements, and he painted hop scotches in the hallways of the elementary school.
Next week, he measured the kids again. Guess what? They were moving more and they were moving faster accumulatively. Now, it’s a silly little experiment perhaps, but if you see this as a pattern, we know that certain environments induce us or nudge us, if you like that word as well, towards different sets of behaviors to change. And they, in a sense, change our thinking about exercise, about movement. So, that’s why people get a dog. I mean, it’s a great external change. It not only makes us feel like we matter, it not only introduces structure and routine and accountability, it also involves us by compulsion. We must take the dog out for a walk. We’re literally outdoors more, hopefully, and in a sense moving.
So, these external elements can actually change our experience. And I have another sort of a funny example. Recently, we were in our neighborhood, we have a fairly good set of neighbors, but partly that’s because we’ve owned a house in the same space for a little while. And the other day, we were having a lot of family over for a turkey dinner, and the turkey didn’t de-thaw. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived this kind of weirdness, and it was just a too big a bird and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do in the fridge and it just wasn’t ready to be cooked when it was supposed to be ready to be cooked.
So, my partner goes scrambles all around the town and finds a couple of other turkeys that are fresh ones that we can cook up and feed everybody. But, meanwhile, we have this turkey that’s now half de-thawed that you can’t do anything with. So, what we do is we put our call out. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story of the stone soup. You know, the guy shows up in a city, town, and says, “I can make a soup from a stone.” He just gets every single person in the town to contribute one little ingredient to the pot of water and, suddenly, he has a beautiful soup.
So, we put out a call to our neighbors, we said, “You know, we have a turkey but we don’t have a turkey dinner. And we need potatoes, we need vegetables, we need stuffing, we need gravy, we need this and that.” And, suddenly, basically, two days later we held a massive party, impromptu, in our kitchen that brought in 30 people, well, 30 of our neighbors.
And the reason I’m sort of saying that is there’s a part of me floating above that whole experience going, “You know, if you want to talk about combatting loneliness, if you want to talk about feeling connected and knowing that you have people in your corner, it’s not always about deep heart-to-heart thoughts, or great emotional moments.” It’s sometimes about simply saying, “Join me in a turkey dinner because I have a big bird that I can’t eat and, frankly, I need a little bit of help doing something like this.”
So, I’m always kind of amazed that we can change our emotional moods, we can change our physical behaviors through external environments. And I think we do this in the workplace all the time as well, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever met somebody like this but one of the best examples that I’ve ever encountered, and it’s so mundane it’s silly, but I’ve met people who don’t necessarily find much meaning in their workplace, but they’re the birthday person on the job.
And I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked in a place where there’s the birthday person. You know, the person who remembers everyone else’s birthday to make sure that there’s a cake, cakes and the cards and stuff? And if you actually sort of look at what’s going on, they have found an identity, a role, a way of building community, a sense of purpose and place. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they’re processing claims for whatever, right? It’s a completely, in a sense, an action that reminds them, that changes their mood. It’s a small act that, evidently, they have to be motivated to do, but it kind of reflects back to them and changes who they are.
That’s really cool. I really like the turkey story and it reminds me of a time when we had too much beer in the keg.
I was like 23 years old, and it’s like, “What are you going to do with all this extra beer?” So, we like made little flyers and slipped them under everyone’s door in the apartment building, and we did. We had a bundle of random folk from across the apartment building finishing up the keg. And it was fun, we got to know these neighbors, like folks we never met before, like, “Well, I’ll show up for some free beer. Sure.”
I love it. And, yeah, the difference between being maybe 23 and 43, or maybe not. Somehow, I tried to play that actually.
Right in the middle now it’s like, “What was going to be my thing? Is it a turkey? Is it a keg?” I’m sure we’ll figure it out, but this is good food for thought saying podcaster pun. Well, tell me, Michael, any final thoughts about boosting resilience before we shift gears to talk about some of your favorite things?
Well, probably the best part of this is really, if I could, just the research is really clear, right? It’s the external things that make us a mess, that causes the trauma. It would make sense that it’s also the external things that are going to heal us. I just don’t understand why when we talk about the external things, there’s these wonderful studies out of the US called the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies where they’ve identified 10 things that are really going to mess you up as an adult. If you have those things happen as a kid, like abuse, and a parent goes to jail, and a parent with a mental illness or an addiction, or even a divorce or separation of parents, all these things have long-term health implications for you when you’re an adult. And that’s what the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies show.
But they’re all preventable, right? These are all preventable things through good social policy, through good healthcare, good access to resources. We can prevent families and children from experiencing these awful things, which kind of, if you flip the coin here, it would make sense that if you also gave children, well, beneficial childhood experiences, you would also decrease heart disease and depression in adulthood. You decrease all the illnesses that are now associated with those negative things as kids.
So, for me, as much as I’m both a clinician and a scientist and a father and a neighbor, there’s such a robust evidence that says to me, “Be resourced, not just rugged, and you’ll stop blaming yourself for these problems.”
Now, Michael, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Well, I would still say something along the lines of it’s easier to change the world around you than yourself. I mean, that’s sort of the mantra that I just keep going with over and over again. Or, maybe even better, Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” which is sort of a rift on the same idea, right? Once you have it, you don’t kind of acknowledge it, you don’t sort of see it, but, boy, once it’s gone, you know it.
And how about a favorite study or bit of research?
Probably the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies which I just talked about, or there’s been some wonderful stuff, sort of the neighborhood studies out of Chicago that were done decades ago. Certainly, it showed up much the same, you know, people’s need for stable housing. Or, a recent study up in Alaska by Shauna BurnSilver. Her colleagues had showed, you know, people’s nutrition and health has very little to do with the food supply, and a whole lot to do with, say, she’s talking about like a hunting in a more sort of hunting societies.
A lot of it has to do with how bountiful the game is, and much more about how the communities share what they have, which kind of speaks again to we’re a lot stronger together and through cultural practices and how we see ourselves as contributing to the welfare of others.
And how about a favorite book?
That’s tough. I love fiction but I also like sort of the non-fiction realm. If readers haven’t come across Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth definitely a great read. He was the commander of the Space Station and the guy who did all the musical performances up there and some great photography as well. And he just kind of basically brings it home. He says there was a lot he learned as an astronaut, but there’s a lot of great lessons about how to cooperate in a team, and how to work together with others. And I think Chris definitely has a great perspective on life.
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
I’d have to say, I know it’s going to, maybe it’s funny, but actually the tool is part of my family. It’s actually what happens in the prep to get to the job. On the job site, it’s probably just finding a common mission. There’s something, a principle called collective impact. If people ever tripped to cross that idea of that you get people on the same agenda, you feel like you’re all collaborating.
I work a lot in international teams where we’re spending a lot of time communicating over the web. And I find that when you have a common mission statement, that’s really great, but it’s even better when your family is interested in what you’re doing, and it kind of reinforces it.
And how about a favorite habit?
Oh, definitely coffee shop hanging out watching people. Whenever I’m too burnt out or just tired and whatever, especially, I travel a great deal, I find it’s the coffee shop, it’s that hunt of a local, not a chain, but sort of a local kind of hip place to hang out and just watch people, and just that centering space of the routine, of doing the same thing, or having the same kind of drink anywhere in the world. It almost transports you home. It almost just reminds you sort of what life is about, I guess, for that particular moment.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, they can check out my website, it’s michaelungar.com. Of course, it has all the links, and the books, and stuff if you want to read a bit more. “Change Your World” is coming out. Hopefully, it’ll inspire some ideas as well. And if they’re really into more research side, the website is resilienceresearch.org and that’s our big research center that we run.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Oh, man. Just, yeah, focus a little bit less on blaming yourself and trying to be rugged, and just think about putting around yourself, enveloping yourself with the resources that are going to bring out your best. And just let it follow, just let your mindset be changed by the environment around you so that people will notice you. Situations will make you feel good about yourself. Your success will sort of elevate your identity and your sense of power and control. These things can all be done through the external cues to you as opposed to, you know, I know it’s so much work.
Frankly, it’s exhausting, exhausting to try and get the world, to try and just change ourselves and then go, day after day, back into a toxic environment. And I think that is such a formula for depression and other diseases or mental health problems, versus just shifting ourselves a little bit into environments that reward us. And, frankly, if work ain’t cutting it, then find that elsewhere. Volunteer. There’s a jazz festival that comes to where I live every summer. I see people volunteering at that. I also see people volunteering as coaches in the little league. You know, there’s endless opportunities to give back and feel like, frankly, you have meaning to others. And, frankly, that’s what resilience is all about. I see it over and over again.
Well, Michael, thanks for sharing the good word, and good luck with your book “Change Your World” and all your adventures.
Well, thanks. And all the best to you and your young family. What an adventure that is.