Cultivating Spiritual Resilience
Strategies to encourage belief in a higher purpose, hope for the future, gratitude for our lives, and the meaning we construct from our suffering.
Jewish history exemplifies spiritual resilience. Countless times, the Jewish people have encountered insurmountable odds, yet survived and even thrived. Hanukkah represents the epitome of spiritual resilience. When the fledgling Maccabees faced the superior Syrian Greek army, the odds were stacked against them. Yet, their spiritual resilience never wavered. The miracle of the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks represents not a physical triumph but a transcendent one. It is this spiritual resilience that is never extinguished, symbolized by the lights of the menorah.
Resilience is multi-faceted; different aspects of our lives shape our capacity to overcome and grow from adversity. My upcoming book, Resilience: A Jewish Guide to Facing Adversity, Fostering Strength, and Living your Best Life, focuses on dozens of ways we can cultivate our resilience. Spiritual resilience is one of those ways; it embodies belief in a higher purpose, hope for the future, gratitude for our lives, and the meaning we construct from our suffering.
Here are a few ways of fostering spiritual resilience.
Encourage faith. Religious faith is an important part of resilience.1, 2 Research finds that religion encourages people to reappraise events in a positive light which, in turn, cultivates emotional wellbeing3 (see my previous article which explains a strategy to foster a positive mindset). For the Jewish people, the most salient protective factor is emunah, faith in God. Our Sages teach us that we can elevate ourselves by acting "as if" we are on a higher level which, in turn, will positively influence our inner thoughts and feelings.4 This corresponds with social science research showing that we can change our emotions and attitudes through changing our behavior.
With this in mind, here are a few actions that you can use to bring more faith (along with hope, gratitude and meaning) into your life.
Prayer. This is an active way that we can remind ourselves of our blessings, focus on our goals, and look deep within ourselves at our role in this world and our relationship with God.
Deeds. Take on one new positive deed (mitzvah) that you aspire to do on a consistent basis. You might, for example, aim to smile at one new person every day. You can dedicate this positive act in honor of a loved one or in hope of a longed-for outcome.
Purpose. Write down a list of your unique strengths. Then, write down specific actions that you can do to utilize these strengths to make the world a better place.
Cultivate hope. Hope goes hand in hand with faith. Hope is expectant and forward-looking. Hope inspires, brings vitality, and fuels our passion for living. Research finds that hope is an important aspect of resilience, enabling an individual to maintain faith in the face of adversity. In Judaism, hope is akin to bitachon, which is translated as trusting God.5 Trusting God entails a powerful sense of optimism and confidence that everything that God does is for the best. Here is a series of hope enhancement strategies.6 Writing these steps down makes them more concrete.
Goals: Identify a personally relevant and workable goal for the future, in an area of your life such as family, friends, community, school, or work.
Pathways: Generate multiple pathways which will lead you to achieving this goal. Break these pathways into more manageable parts, anticipating barriers, and planning alternative routes in case of setbacks.
Motivation: Use positive self-talk to optimize your motivation to accomplish your goal. Set aside 5 minutes every day, stand in front of a mirror, and say aloud motivational statements that you need to hear to encourage you to strive toward this goal.
Count your blessings. There is clear evidence that practicing gratitude can improve our mental health.7 Research has further shown that positive emotions such as gratitude can loosen the hold that negative emotions have on a person's mind and body and speed their recovery from stressful events.8 Evidence also suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude later on, which may contribute to improved mental health over time.9 Here are some ideas on how to best utilize gratitude in order to nurture one’s resilience.
Action: Turn your gratitude into actionable behaviour such as writing in a journal or using a gratitude app.
Format: Use a format that works best for you. This may involve writing down three things that went well today and why these happened. Others prefer to write about what they are grateful for in free form (without thinking about it).
Schedule: Do this exercise at the same time every day.
Time: Have a time limit of 5-10 minutes.
Effect: Give yourself at least four weeks to experience the benefits.
Reflection: Read through what you have written over a period of time and reflect on how you have grown spiritually and mentally.
Find meaning. This involves understanding and making sense of life events, relationships, and ourselves. Having a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life and attributing challenging situations to benevolent religious reasons (for example, the will of God) rather than to our own human error boost our resilience in response to challenges.10
Finding meaning is often not an easy process, especially when we are faced with hardships that lead us to question life’s purpose. Here is an exercise reflecting Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy, which is based on the belief that we are motivated by the search for meaning. Logotherapy was founded on Frankl’s personal experiences of loss and suffering in Nazi concentration camps.
Write down your thoughts in response to the following questions:
Creativity: What do you give to the world through your good deeds, relationships with others, creativity, work, volunteering, and hobbies?
Experiences: What do you receive from the world through the arts (music, theatre, concerts, galleries, museums, literature), nature, spirituality, and relationships with others?
Change of attitude: Reflect on a challenging situation that you face. How has your life perspective changed due to this situation? How might another person view this situation? What advice would you give to help others in this situation? What is the most helpful way you can respond to this situation? What have you learned from this situation that encourages your positive growth and transformation?
Spiritual resilience involves recognizing and striving to fulfill our life mission and contributing to the world in a positive way, often in the face of setbacks and sometimes suffering. It requires undertaking serious hard work – pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, earnestly reflecting on our life and its meaning, and endeavoring to reach our utmost spiritual potential.
Photo credit: Thom Holmes, Unsplash.com
- Bridges, L.J., & Moore. K.A. (2002). Religious Involvement and children’s well-being: What research tells us (and what it doesn’t). Child Trends Research Brief. Washington, DC: Child Trends, Inc.
- McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69.
- Vishkin, A., Ben-Nun Bloom, P., Schwartz, S. H., Solak, N., & Tamir, M. (2019). Religiosity and Emotion Regulation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 50(9), 1050-1074.
- Pliskin, Zelig. Consulting the Wise. page 218.
- Chovas HaLevavos, Shaar HaBitachon
- Snyder, C. R., Ilardi, S. S., Cheavens, J., Michael, S. T., Yamhure, L., & Sympson, S. (2000). The role of hope in cognitive-behavior therapies. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24(6), 747-762.
- Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
- Fredrickson, B.L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 12(2), 191-220.
- Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. W. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage, 128, 1-10.
- Park, C. L. (2016). Meaning making and resilience. The Routledge International Handbook of Psychosocial Resilience, 162- 172.