Why Young Adults Should Build Emotional Resilience, Not ResolutionsReading Time: 6 minutes
The past couple of years have taught us that there’s very little we can predict or control. For most of us, plans and goals, whether big or small, have been upended time and again by the pandemic. The only thing we do have control over is our own behavior. So shouldn’t we be making lots of New Year’s resolutions right about now?
Researchers and mental health experts say no. Their recommendation is to build emotional resilience instead. Measuring our worth by what we achieve and how many items we can check off our list won’t support mental health or life satisfaction in the long run. That’s because New Year’s resolutions are typically based on our idea of what will make us more likable or impressive, rather than what really matters to us.
"For young adults who have lost jobs this year, been forced to return to their family homes, or postponed moves or college, developing resilience is more important than accomplishing goals."
Ultimately, when we resolve to “do better,” we confirm the message that we’re not good enough right now. What would it feel like to stop striving toward goals and start embracing everything you already are? That’s the first step to build emotional resilience and the well-being that resilience creates.
Why Resolutions Don’t Work
Studies show that most New Year’s resolutions don’t work. In part, that’s because we tend to set unrealistic expectations and goals. We set out to do too much in too many different areas of life, and quickly give up because the tasks we’ve set for ourselves are so daunting. And instead of examining our real desires and motivations, we use others’ achievements as a guide.
Young adults in particular constantly compare themselves to others’ looks, habits, and accomplishments, as portrayed in carefully curated images on social media. That can lead to a sense of unworthiness and lack, which drives them to make unattainable goals for themselves. This mindset can lead young people not only to give up on reaching those goals, but also to drop out of college or quit a job.
Moreover, the idea that we can change our habits simply through willpower is flawed. Our behaviors are typically rooted in underlying psychological patterns created by past experiences as well as our current emotional needs. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to create positive change and forward movement, we must first come to know and accept ourselves as we are. Without that essential—and often challenging—work, true transformation cannot occur.
Can Resolutions Actually Hurt Your Mental Health?
Statistics show that making a resolution is extremely likely to end in giving up on it. As a result, failure is baked right in. For those who struggle with self-esteem or suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, giving up and “failing” at a goal can exacerbate negative emotions. Feelings of shame, self-hatred, hopelessness, disappointment, and despair can accompany the process.
In an essay on The Mighty, Laura Snelling, who has struggled with mental illness since she was a teenager, writes with raw honesty about her attitude toward New Year’s resolutions: “I already hate myself and think I’m a failure and a waste of space because I can’t do anything right. The moment I didn’t stick with my resolution for the first time, is like promising disaster. My mental stability would plummet down the drain because I just screwed up yet again, and here I am validating that I can’t do anything right and I’m definitely a failure.”
Moreover, young adults who push themselves to achieve goals due to perfectionism and self-judgment often do so at the expense of other parts of their lives. Consequently, they sacrifice balance and well-being in pursuit of achievement and attainment. Furthermore, setting goals around health-related behaviors can be triggering for young adults with disordered eating or exercise addiction. In addition, it’s common to achieve goals and feel an immediate sense of satisfaction that subsequently dissolves and leaves us back where we were before. That can leave young adults with the feeling that no matter what they accomplish, that don’t feel any better. As often as you’ve heard it, it still bears repeating: True happiness doesn’t come from achievements. So where does it come from?
What Is Emotional Resilience, and What Builds Resilience?
Multiple studies point to the link between resilience and mental health. Resilience is a source of positive emotions, overall well-being, and good mental health. What is emotional resilience? It’s the ability to navigate challenging experiences and recover more quickly from adversity. “People with higher levels of emotional resilience have an easier time adapting to stressful situations or crises, with fewer negative effects,” says Kristin Wilson, Newport’s Vice President of Clinical Outreach. “They’re able to bounce back more quickly from setbacks, and to take challenges in stride.”
It’s impossible to avoid grief, disappointment, and distress. But emotionally resilient people are able to move through these experiences more easily and return to their usual levels of well-being. Furthermore, resilience and mental health are closely linked. Young adults with higher levels of resilience are less likely to experience depression, trauma, and anxiety as a result of the pandemic, according to recent research. Resilient people also have a lower risk of turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, self-harm, or eating disorders.
Positive psychology researchers have identified a number of traits and behaviors that help with building resilience in adults of all ages, including:
- Having a sense of purpose and meaning
- Cultivating optimism
- Feeling a sense of gratitude
- Being drawn to help others
- Using humor to cope with hardships
- Strong social connection and support
- A willingness to confront and grow from difficult emotions.
Moreover, all of these traits can be cultivated, and, in turn, boost resilience and mental health. This is what’s known in positive psychology as “an upward spiral of positive emotions”—the opposite of a vicious cycle.
5 Ways to Build Resilience
While some people seem to have naturally high resilience levels, recent research shows that developing resilience in adults, and even in children and teens, is possible. We can build resilience just as we would work to acquire any other skill. For young adults, it may in fact be easier to build resilience, because the brain continues to develop up to around age 24 and is, therefore, more receptive to resilience-enhancing influences.
Here are five ways to build emotional resilience at home, resilience in the workplace, and resilience in relationships.
Start with self-compassion. Offering yourself acceptance, compassion, and unconditional love regardless of your perceived flaws or failures is central to developing resilience. A study with teens and young adults done by Kristin Neff, well known for her research in this area, shows that resilience and self-compassion go hand in hand. Neff suggests that we build resilience by using compassionate self-talk or touch, such as placing a hand or both hands on your heart when you feel stress or self-judgment arise.
Reframe the narrative. Reframing self-judging thoughts and stories can help young adults to break the habit of negativity and see themselves and the world in new and more positive ways. Reframing can enhance self-esteem and self-confidence. Looking for the positives in a situation also trains the brain to focus on strengths and opportunities rather than flaws and problems. For example, a young adult can reframe “I’m bad at X” into “I’m still learning how to do X.” Or, “I messed everything up” might be reframed as “I see what didn’t work well and I can do it differently next time.”
Practice mindfulness. Mindful practices like yoga and meditation help to enhance self-acceptance and the ability to be in the present moment, rather than regretting the past or worrying about the future. Moreover, these practices build resilience on a neurobiological level as well. Mindfulness exercises increase what’s known as vagal tone, a measurement connected to the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. And high vagal tone is correlated with stronger stress resilience.
Develop strong social connections. Having a strong social support network is proven to increase resilience and counteract what’s become known during the pandemic as “virtual isolation.” These connections may include friends, family, colleagues, and mentors, as well as a mental health professional who can guide you in addressing underlying issues affecting your well-being.
Appreciate what’s good in your life. Research done with university students shows that consciously practicing gratitude increases resilience and positive emotions. So instead of making a New Year’s resolution, consider ending the year by reflecting on your silver linings, your supportive connections, and the things you love about yourself. Then begin 2022 with the knowledge that where you are right now is exactly where you need to be. From a foundation of self-acceptance, gratitude, and resilience, growth and change will happen naturally.
How to Build Resilience in the Treatment Environment
At Newport Institute, young adults build emotional resilience and mental health through tailored treatment plans designed for their specific needs and stage of life. Clients’ daily schedules in our residential and outpatient programs include a variety of clinical, life skills, and experiential modalities, including cognitive reframing exercises, meditation and yoga, peer bonding, and gratitude practices.