Super-resilience: the key to enjoying your 2020s
The future is already here, if you know where to look for it
By Alan Heeks
Would you agree that for most people, life and work have become a lot more demanding and uncertain in recent years? And is that trend likely to grow in future? If so, what’s the positive response to the evolutionary challenge? This is what I’m calling super-resilience.
Currently, I see many individuals and work teams struggling to cope at their current skill level. If we want to enjoy the 2020’s, as well as survive them, we’ll need more skills, deeper resilience. Resilience is an over-used and sometimes misused word. Government and employers may use it to urge us to get by with even less resources.
However, true resilience is a vital skill for our times, so let’s review in some detail what super-resilience could mean for some specific sectors, and how I’m exploring it through the Seeding our Future Project. – Alan Heeks
Super-Resilience for who?
My exploration of this topic is through the Seeding our Future project which I am funding and leading. Our aim is to understand the likely pressures and upsides of the next 20-30 years, gather best practice in super-resilience, identify where innovation is needed, and find ways to share all this with our target client groups: individuals, communities, and front-line work teams, such as health, teaching, care, voluntary sector, and other public services.
Super-Resilience to what?
This is a key question. The UK Government has done a lot of work on resilience, but defined narrowly as responding to sudden emergencies: natural disasters, terrorist attacks and so on. These are significant stresses, and sadly they’re growing, but there are many others, and new ones ahead in the future. Here’s a short list:
A 10-20 year outlook
Think of significant increased pressures in the past 5-10 years, and imagine them increasing a lot further:
– Political and economic disruption through cyber-attacks (cf the US Presidential election).
– Further growth in refugee and migrant movements.
– Major and minor terrorist attacks in developed countries.
– Further rise in income disparities and the wealth of the uber rich.
– More frequent and extreme weather events.
– Ongoing cuts in public services, leading to some significant problems (such as Grenfell Tower).
Now add some new pressures:
– Rise in food prices, and occasional supply shortages.
– Frequent cyber-disruption of daily activities (banking, social media, mobile phone use).
– The ‘culture of cuts’ leads to a significant rise in disruption from strikes, walkouts, and protest actions, by both workers and service users (e.g. NHS patients, commuters).
– The NHS have to make major policy decisions on priorities, e.g. cease life-extending treatments for anyone over 80.
– Technological innovations become more radical, and seem to have a life of their own (driverless cars, genetic modifications), driven by business profit goals.
– More to come…
Eight Dimensions of Super-resilience
In Seeding our Future, we are exploring eight dimensions, each described in more detail in following sections.
- Emotional and mental resilience: raising ability to find joy and build on positives; processing stress and negative feelings; handling conflict; deepening emotional support.
- Spiritual resilience: finding inspiration and direction in challenges; growing through any sense of helplessness and despair, seeing a bigger perspective.
- Physical health: including help from diet, exercise, complementary medicine, etc.
- Practical resilience for individuals: including home, phone, transport, food and utility supplies.
- Practical resilience for front-line service teams: avoiding burnout, dealing with funding cuts, and handling rising client demands and service failures.
- Practical resilience for local communities: shared resources and services, mutual support, handling emergencies.
- Learning, leadership and invention: crucial skills in cultivating super-resilience.
- Harnessing technology: tailoring it to real human needs, and handling its pressures.
1. Emotional and mental resilience
It’s clear that the stresses and complexities of modern life, including its technologies, put more emotional strain on us. The book Your Brain on Nature cites medical research showing how hours with smartphones and computers keep us in a continual state of anxiety and make it hard to relax.
There are many methods already available to develop emotional super-resilience: the obstacles are people’s willingness to use them, and a need to offer them in more accessible forms. Here are some examples:
- Mindfulness, NLP and other ways to process negative emotions.
- Assertiveness, Non-Violent Communication, and other approaches to handle difficult feelings and conflicts between people.
- Time in nature as a key antidote to the stresses of ‘screen world.’ Some GP’s now write ‘green prescriptions.’
There’s also great scope for innovation, such as:
- Use of smart, micro, personalised technology, like a stress monitor that intervenes with help when you’re upset.
- Widespread use of sound, smell, images, etc., as quick ways to calm individuals and groups.
- Deeper integration of physical remedies (diet, herbs, exercise, etc) with emotional support.
I now have several years’ experience of working with colleagues to lead resilience programmes, especially for individuals and front-line services. A key element of these has been learning in a natural environment, and using Nature as a role model of resilience: most of these programmes have been held at Hazel Hill Wood, the 70-acre woodland centre I have set up near Salisbury.
2. Spiritual resilience
I’ve been exploring resilience for five years, and I find that the spiritual aspect is one of the hardest to discuss or explain, but it is vital in super-resilience. So what do I mean by spiritual? In his excellent book, The Power of Modern Spirituality, William Bloom poses three questions which can help you recognise the spiritual aspects already in your life:
- In what kind of circumstances do you most easily connect with the wonder and energy of nature and all existence, and feel your heart touched and your consciousness awakened?
- When is it easiest for you to retreat from activity, pause and reflect on your life, so as to manage your life and next steps?
- What are your highest values and how do you express them as a form of service for the community of life?
He goes on to suggest three behaviours at the heart of all spiritual paths, whether or not these fit within a named tradition:
- Connection – sometimes, surely, your heart is touched and you connect with the wonder and energy of life.
- Reflection – sometimes already, you pause and reflect on your life and actions, and ponder how to change and improve.
- Service – and sometimes, of course, you have a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong, and you act so as to do good for others.
The term spiritual does not mean religious. You may have a spiritual path, as defined above, without any beliefs in God or connection to established religions. If this all sounds alien or impractical, it’s worth saying that many research studies show that having spiritual values and practices of some kind does increase resilience generally, and physical health and recovery in particular.
As life gets more challenging physically and emotionally, a spiritual perspective can help us keep a sense of purpose, meaning, connection to the bigger picture. This is getting more crucial because of growing trends which can leave us feeling alone and overwhelmed in an apparently nasty, pointless world: the deluge of global bad news in mainstream media, the shift from personal contacts to hours alone with a screen, and more.
There are plenty of role models and teachers of spiritual resilience. For example, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have lived through repeated traumas both personally and in their homelands, but meet life hopefully, as in their Book of Joy. Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan girl shot by Taliban is another inspiring example.
So what would super-resilience look like on the spiritual level? I’m still exploring this, partly through workshop groups. Here are some of the threads in my exploration:
- The writings of American eco-philosopher Thomas Berry, who highlights the importance of dreams (visions of hope), and of changing our myths or prevailing beliefs. He highlights the amazing creative wisdom of Gaia, Planet Earth, in evolving through repeated crises, and the need for humans to align and connect with this.
- Deep ecology, a process created by Joanna Macy, drawing from Native American and Buddhist sources. She believes that most people are pushed into denial and inertia because they can’t process their pain and despair about the state of the Earth. Deep ecology is a powerful way to help do this, and involves the support of a group as a key element.
- Using deeper ways to learn from Nature, and in Nature. Processes connecting us with the wildness and wisdom of Nature can be a powerful source of new insights and motivation.
3. Physical health
It’s clear that our bodies were not designed for the lifestyle most of us lead, and the rise in stress-related illness is alarming. According to HSE (Health & Safety Executive), in 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases. It’s also very clear that emotional and spiritual concerns are causing physical health problems and raising emotional and spiritual resilience can help hugely with our physical wellbeing.
The knowhow available to help us create physical super-resilience is huge, and it’s now quite easy to tailor this to any individual’s condition and needs. Diet and exercise are the obvious starting points, but sustaining super-resilience is likely to require sophisticated help from what might broadly be called complementary therapies, for example:
- Herbal remedies and supplements.
- Shiatsu, Pilates, kundalini yoga, and other ways to help the body process stress and sustain high energy levels.
- Sound healing, aromatherapy, and methods to achieve deep relaxation despite high stresses.
- Greater understanding and better antidotes to physical stressors such as air or water pollution, electromagnetic radiation and others.
4. Practical resilience for individuals
Over the next decade, more interruptions to basic services like mobile phones, electric power, internet, are very likely. Why? Causes could include severe weather, cyber-hacking, disruption to satellite systems, and more. Food shortages and major food price inflation, service cuts, economic downturn are a few of the potential issues.
The sensible steps could include a backup power-system; a stock of basic food; and getting to know your neighbours. Super-resilience could include all this and more, for example new, robust technologies for the home, local food processing technology, etc.
5. Practical resilience for front-line service teams
I’ve been leading resilience training with people from a wide range of front-line public services: most of them feel close to burnout, and demoralised by the future outlook. This comment is typical: from a team manager in an NHS hospital, “we’ve had years of rising demands and shrinking resources. It’s reached a stage where the quality and resilience is being ground out of my team. There’s a high risk of staff burnout and service failures, and the future outlook is literally unthinkable”.
One of SOF’s current priorities is to work with these services to explore what’s ‘beyond the beyond.’ Here are some guesses at what super-resilience may mean here:
- Mutual support: the best front-line teams I’ve seen have an outstanding quality of mutual care. There are ways that this could be deepened even more: for example through emotional intelligence and spiritual resilience.
- Pass-back to clients: one of the big stressors on front-line services is the rising number, severity and complexity of client needs they are trying to serve. I believe that ‘pass-back’ will become crucial in future: spelling out to clients the limits of the service they can expect, and providing them with information and support to do more for themselves. This is already happening in the NHS, for example.
- Handling service failures: these are likely to get more frequent and severe in future, and part of super-resilience will be the ability of service teams to live with such failures, and even grow through them.
- Vision and direction: a team who are inspired can work wonders. Super-resilience probably requires teams to be empowered with a greater say in the vision and direction of their work.
6. Practical resilience for local communities
Think about the pressures which local communities have had to face over the past ten years: public service cuts, floods, riots, and more. Transition Network and others have done a great job at building resilience at this level. My guess about super-resilience for future challenges include:
- Methods to maintain communication locally if phones stop working. Maybe a new technology, or old: remember walkie-talkies and notice boards?
- A deeper level of coordination to identify resources and the people who would need most help in an emergency.
- Further growth in local communities providing services and shared facilities for themselves as local authorities and others cut back, and professional skills, funding sources, etc. to enable this.
- Emergence of ways for communities to nourish their members on the emotional and spiritual levels, to deepen general resilience.
- Raising the skill levels of community leaders and members in handling conflict, crisis, and uncertainty.
- Figuring out how to involve more members of communities: often it’s a minority of usual suspects.
7. Learning, leadership and innovation
It’s clear that a lot of the future challenges to our resilience will be unforeseen. This includes not only sudden events (storms, terrorism), but major ongoing changes (Brexit, Trump). So super-resilience requires the skills to learn fast, to invent when facing the unprecedented, to find information and resources quickly, and to collaborate with others in crisis conditions.
Super-resilience involves the ability to anticipate different futures, to be attuned to weak and early signals of possible change, and to adapt in the moment as changes appear – it is a constant state of readiness that appreciates that the actual future that unfolds will not have been anticipated, and that the learning from previous events and actions is vital but inadequate to cope with the future.
Learning comes from not just experience but from imagination. The ‘super’ aspect, meaning ‘above’, includes placing resilience thinking in a whole system, long-term context by considering the interactions and interference of the complex global issues that are shaping the world and that any local considerations of resilience are bound up in this flux of change and must make sense within them.
8. Harnessing technology
When do you date the start of technology? Whether you choose the spinning jenny, the motor car, the computer, it’s always been a curse and a boon. Often it raises the speed and complexity of life, and hence our stress levels.
There are dramatic changes coming our way soon: for example, pervasive micro-intelligence; robotics; biotechnology; and more. Within the next ten years, technologies will become a lot more indispensable, and even more able to manipulate/shape human feelings and behaviour (eg. social media is an early example of this trend).
The risk is clearly that most of this technology will be used to boost corporate profits, whatever it may claim, and may deplete our resilience more than helping. The scope to harness technology as an aid to super-resilience is vast, but it may require alternative thinking and small social enterprises to achieve this. SOF has already commissioned some research into the future upsides and downsides of technology.
Next steps towards super-resilience
We have gathered some research on all the topics above over the past two years. We are now running a range of pilot events, described on our website. Some of the questions about super-resilience which we aim to explore in the Seeding our Future project include:
- Best practice: Where are the best, practical examples of super-resilience? They may be in super stressed situations, such as the NHS, inner cities, Palestine, or refugee camps.
- Communication: What are the best ways to record and share the best practices we find? Possibilities might include a Wiki website, video material, blogs, and interactive workshops.
- Innovation: Are there resilience needs which call for innovation to meet them? This could mean new social processes and structures, new individual skills, new services or technologies. If so, how can we encourage such innovations to happen?
- Dialogue: Where are there leading-edge networks with whom we can work to develop super-resilience in practice, and to learn how it could be disseminated.
- Dissemination: Currently it’s clear that mainstream UK struggles with the present, and doesn’t want to know about the future. Exploring how to disseminate our outputs may have at least two channels:
i. Early adopters: such as Transition Network, Network of Wellbeing.
ii. Grain stores: when mainstream individuals and communities decide they need more resilience knowhow, where would they turn? Can we place resources in these channels?
Want to know more?
www.futurescanning.org: this website gives more details of the work planned, and resources will be added to it.
www.naturalhappiness.net: for details of Alan’s model of wellbeing and resilience based on natural systems, and signup for Alan’s monthly e-newsletter.
Two articles by Chris Johnstone, originally published in the British Holistic Medical Association Journal.