Become More Resilient by Learning to Take Joy Seriously

Photo: Tobias Ackeborn/Getty Images

Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, author of the popular book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and chief operating officer at Facebook, tragically lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, after he suffered a cardiac arrhythmia while running on a treadmill. In addition to leaving Sandberg a widow at age 45, Goldberg’s death left their two young children — at the time both still in elementary school — without a father.

Such an event, and the grief that accompanies it, is utterly unimaginable. Even so, Sandberg acknowledged that she had “no choice but to wake up every day. No choice but to get through the shock, the grief, the survivor’s guilt. No choice but to try to move forward and be a good mother at home. No choice but to try to focus and be a good colleague at work.” Throughout this period of no choices, Sandberg was supported by her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the author of the best sellers Give and Take and Originals. Grant — who, among other things, studies how people find motivation and meaning in life — showed up at Goldberg’s funeral, assured Sandberg that even though she is strong, he’d be by her side. He offered her evidence-based tips on how to become more resilient (for both her own good and for that of her children), then helped her apply them.

The two teamed up to write a book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which details Sandberg’s experience and the topic of resilience more broadly. Though it was inspired by a deeply personal tragedy, the book is filled with insight that is useful for anyone overcoming loss or failure. I recently spoke with Grant to discuss the book and some of the key concepts in it.

This book is certainly an act of courage, especially for Sheryl. How did you both decide to write it?

After Sheryl lost her husband Dave, she started journaling. She ended up sharing her writing with a core group of family and friends so that she didn’t need to update everyone individually. In response to her journals, I often thought of insights from psychology that were relevant. After Sheryl opened up about some of what we learned together in a Facebook post, there was an outpouring of requests for more. Eventually, we decided to write a book that would be part memoir of her experience, part key ideas from psychology, and part stories about other people who have overcome different kinds of hardships. Our hope is that Option B will help people build resilience and support others who are in pain.

You write that there are “three Ps” that often diminish resilience: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Can you briefly describe each?

These are common traps that people fall into after a negative event. It’s so easy to get stuck in rumination: It’s all my fault (personalization); this is going to ruin every aspect of my life (pervasiveness); I’m going to feel like this forever (permanence). There is a wide body of evidence that if you can minimize this kind of thinking, you’ll be more resilient.

Is one most challenging to overcome?

Permanence seems to be the hardest, by far. When we are feeling horrible, we tend to project that out indefinitely, and it’s sticky. It’s hard to convince yourself that the awful feelings won’t last forever.

It seems that a large part of avoiding the three Ps — and being resilient more broadly — is related to the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives. Yet it’s human nature to focus on negatives over positives. How can people encourage themselves to tell positive, but not delusional, stories?

It’s a tightrope walk to embrace the feelings as they come and still find a way to craft a hopeful narrative. We have to give ourselves permission to feel sadness, but at the same, realize some meaning or happiness is out there, and include that in our story, too. Writing down three moments of joy every day can really help people improve their outlook and subsequent story. It’s a simple intervention, but it helps shift your attention just a bit. The more you attend to those joyful moments, the more it changes how you process the entire day.

Journaling about negative emotions also helps, but not immediately. The dominant trend in journaling research is that when people write about a traumatic experience, initially they feel worse. But over the next few weeks and months, they see an uptick in both mental and physical health. It requires a tremendous amount of energy to bottle up emotions, so journaling is an outlet for some of that. Journaling can also help us make sense of difficult events. The evidence shows that journaling for just 15 minutes a few times can help.

It turns out that the happiest people are not those who maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, but rather those who have dips and climbs, and who tell redemption narratives: stories where something bad happened, but something good came out of it. This is part of Sheryl’s aspiration for Option B: Dave spent so much of his life helping others, and by writing about what she learned, she is honoring the life he lived.

You write a lot about the importance of social support, especially from friends and family. I was fascinated by what you called the “mum-effect” or the “non-questioning friend.” Basically — and I know I’ve been guilty of this — a friend or family member doesn’t want to bring up bad news, so they don’t, and I don’t either. But it sounds like, generally speaking, this is not the best strategy for a support person — that it’s actually better to bring up the negative. What pieces of advice do you have for people in a support role who may be unsure of how they should support someone going through loss or failure?

Loss and hardship are bad enough on their own, but they often become even worse because they tend to have an isolating effect. The first thing we need to do is recognize that if someone has gone through something truly painful, it’s not possible to remind them of it — they are already aware, and it’s probably already occupying their thoughts throughout the day. So, in a sense, the topic already has been broached without you saying a word.

A common mistake is to give too much reassurance. We often say things like, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay.” How do you know they’ll be okay? Unless you’ve gone through a very similar experience, you don’t, and the comfort can sound very hollow. A better route is to acknowledge their pain and reassure them that you’re not just there for them, but also with them. “I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling. I already believe that you’re strong on your own, but we’re going to be strong together. I’m here.”

What about on a more macro-level? You write, “Being part of a community can give us strength that we sometimes can’t find on our own.” How in particular does community help?

Communities build resilience when they help us to connect with people who share our experiences, to find hope and create a story of how our future will be different from our past, and give us access to shared power to create that future. Support groups can be extremely helpful, but there’s no reason that broader communities — like a city or town — can’t strive to meet these needs as well.

This book made me realize that so many workplace policies stifle resilience. How can this change?

The most important thing is expanded leave. The average employee in the United States gets just three days off after losing a child. This is unacceptable. And it’s not just about bereavement, but about illness and other kinds of hardships, too. Not only is expanded leave the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing. Research shows that people who get support from employers become more loyal. They are proud to work for a company with a heart, that cares for people. And they are grateful that a leave/support program exists — they know that if and when something happens, their company has their back.

A supportive workplace also makes sense because, if they have support, people can actually grow from trauma, right?

Yes. Posttraumatic growth is the idea that sometimes people don’t just bounce back, they bounce forward. That’s not to say that all the sadness associated with a loss has disappeared. Growth is about saying there are some positive changes that go along with the sadness.

What are those positive changes?

There are a handful, but they tend to fall into five major buckets:

• Increased personal strength — being able to say, “I got through that, so I can get through anything.”

• Gratitude — realizing how quickly things can be taken away, and thus becoming more determined to appreciate what you have.

• Deeper relationships — developing new or stronger connections, especially with people who have gone through similar loss.

• More meaning in life — having a renewed sense of purpose, particularly around helping people who have faced similar pain to ours.

• New possibilities — realizing that, although you’d give anything to have not suffered a loss or failure, now that you have, new doors might open up as a result.

You write that “joy is a discipline … that joy allows us to go on living and loving and being there for others.” I just love that quote. Can you elaborate on what practices underlie that discipline?

Yes! This has been a big lesson for me. I’ve often thought of joy as something frivolous. When I’ve faced a choice between happiness and meaning, I’ve tended to gravitate toward seeking meaning. Yet during the process of writing Option B, I learned that moments of joy don’t just give us happiness — they also give us more strength. They make life worth living, especially amidst hardship.

As for how to practice joy? Regularly counting your blessings or keeping a gratitude journal is great. Also, flow experiences — or activities in which you become completely immersed, losing your sense of time and place and even self — can be very joyful. For someone like you, Brad, this may be running. For others, it could be music or reading fiction or creating visual art. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to regularly engage in these activities. And, equally as important, when you come out of the flow state, pause for a moment to reflect on how beautiful it was.

Become More Resilient by Learning to Take Joy Seriously