Positive development and resilience

Chapter 5 moves from cognitive-motivational processes of adaptation to the difficult and differently answered question of what positive ageing means. The desire for a successful life is a general one, and concrete ideas regarding how this should be achieved vary across individuals. There is no cut-and-dried answer to this problem. Several subjective criteria offer standards for positive developmental outcomes, whereas other views of life success focus on developmental tasks or objective criteria (e.g. physical and cognitive functioning). Positive development denotes a value judgement that I introduce with reference to resilience, that is, in the context of loss and adversity. Many things gain value because they are not secure or because we can lose them when we grow older. Chapter 5 introduces the resilience concept and shows that adaptive processes can result in manifold ways of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being (Klinger, 2012). Against this background of multiple facets of positive ageing or successful development, the concepts of decline and growth must be clarified to understand what positive ageing and mental health in adulthood means.

Positive development in the face of adversity: The process of resilience

Resilience denotes the idea that individuals can avoid negative consequences despite significant risk factors. An intriguing question is how some people apply their resources (and which ones) compared with others who do not. The concept of resilience was frequently used in child development (as a counterpoint to psychopathological development in the face of threatening factors, such as poverty or abuse) before its application was extended across the lifespan (Staudinger, Marsiske, & Baltes, 1995). Currently, the concept is used in quite different ways, denoting, for instance, a positive outcome, protective stabilizing processes, or positively valued traits such as optimism or hardiness. Some approaches link resilience to coping, social interaction, and affective processing (Greve et al., 2018; Leipold, Munz, & Michéle-Malkowsky, 2019) or to physical and neuroendocrine functioning, just to name a few. The remaining questions are whether there is a general resilience mechanism that coordinates positive functioning in different domains (Kalisch, Müller, & Tiischer, 2015) or, if no such single orchestrating process is assumed, how exactly do neuronal processes interact with emotional processing in a social context? These questions are still a focus of contemporary research on resilience (Masten, 2014).

Resilience from a developmental perspective

The inflationary use of the term resilience has not led to conceptual clarity but rather illustrates the need for a term that describes the complex process of positive adaptation in the face of adversity. In the following section, I concentrate on the developmental perspective of resilience. I refer to an approach in which it has been argued that it is useful to define resilience as a relational construct rather than a personality characteristic, that is, a constellation of risk factors, on the one hand, and available protective factors, on the other (Greve & Staudinger 2006; Staudinger & Greve, 2017). Physical or social resources (e.g. physical fitness, money, social support) and mental resources (e.g. coping and self-regulation processes) contribute to the maintenance or recovery of developmental outcomes such as well-being, life satisfaction, or a given level of performance. This model of resilience emphasizes the ongoing process of adaptation and development (see Figure 5.1).

Resilience = if a coping episode

Environment, socio-cultural context


FIGURE 5.1 Resilience as a constellation of adaptive processes and nonpsychological resources across the lifespan.

Werner Greve and I used Karl Popper’s famous formulation ‘all life is problem solving’ (the title of a collection of essays and one of his latest speeches; Popper, 1999) to illustrate the interdependent relationship between coping (problem solving) and development (Leipold & Greve, 2009). On the one hand, development consists of many problems that have or had to be solved. On the other hand, the quality (e.g. how successfully) with which one solves a problem will shape further problem solving and the individual’s further development. Thus, all life is problem solving, which in turn makes development possible. We call it resilience when people who are subjected to adversity do not develop lasting (mental) health problems. Recovery from loss can take weeks or months, and setbacks are absolutely possible. This means that certain characteristics (instrumental coping, optimism) cannot once and for all be considered positive or protective resources. A developmental perspective takes the dynamic interplay of experiencing gains and losses across the lifespan into consideration.

One difficulty of the resilience concept is that it is defined by success, that is, being successful in the face of difficulties. This juxtaposition is fascinating; who doesn’t like to be resilient? The literature adds to this confusion by applying the term resilience to two different aspects. One is the result that needs to be explained (resilience as a positive outcome); the other refers to the shaping processes (causes). If one uses resilience as a concept with explanatory power, as is often the case in the confusing research, one risks a tautological argument (‘Why did some people overcome adverse situations? Because of their resiliency.’). Recently, Kalisch, Muller, and Tiischer (2015) made an effort to explain how several factors (external factors, e.g. socioeconomic status, social support; personal factors, e.g. coping styles, optimism; biological factors, e.g. brain functioning, hormonal factors) contribute to resilience. The authors called their theory ‘positive appraisal style theory’. One of their central assumptions was that the way an individual interprets, appraises, and analyzes potential threatening stimuli mediates positive outcomes. The authors consider a positive appraisal style (p. 9) to be the key mechanism that protects against the negative effects of stress. This focus has led to misunderstandings and questions, for instance, regarding whether or not positive (re)appraisal is always good. Kalisch and colleagues explain in their response to critical comments that they acknowledge the adaptive nature of stress responses and discuss the protective function of unrealistic appraisals. In their application of the term ‘positive’ to the regulating mechanisms, the positive connotation implies success and suggests to a certain degree that the fact that regulating processes can also lead to negative consequences can be ignored. The comments on Kalisch et al.’s (2015) theory and the authors’ response to critics are valuable because they demonstrate central difficulties that the concept of resilience still has.

I do not like to give the impression that coping resources that are sometimes designated as ‘positive’ coping strategies (e.g. positive appraisals, self-efficacy, internal control, social relationships) are not protective. Several studies show that they are. However, the picture is more complex: Too much self-efficacy can lead to an overestimation of one’s strengths and result in self-damaging actions. Rather, I wish to make the point that people have to make an effort to stabilize their situation and resources. Positive development is not a simple consequence of protective factors one does or does not have. Life is neither a constant nor a certainty, and resilience is a process that needs to be constantly renewed.

From a developmental point of view, the role of age-related changes in physical, neuronal, or cognitive domains should be considered. During adulthood and especially in advanced age, several declines become evident (e.g. age-related declines in organ capacity; in brain functioning, such as the number of neurons and information-processing speed; and in several memory domains). The decline in these domains, which begins at approximately age 30, is not easy to notice and does not negatively influence everyday performance in the first half of life. A basic characteristic of adult development is that human ageing is modifiable with and without external intervention. Through expertise and the application of regulation strategies (e.g. selection, optimization, and compensation; Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006; see Chapter 2), people are able to cope with physical changes under normal conditions. Research on cognitive training has shown that it is possible to regain earlier levels of intellectual functioning. For instance, long-term intervention studies that investigated the effects of aerobic training on cognitive performance in middle and old age found that cognitive functioning improved across a wide range of tasks (e.g. Jonasson et al., 2017). There is also work that examines how an active and social lifestyle may also help to attenuate cognitive decline in perceptual speed (e.g. Lovden, Ghisletta, & Lindenberger, 2005). Thus, it seems that there is cognitive resilience that is based on physical and cognitive reactivation.

Depending on their severity and number, such declines can serve as a source of stress or can enhance the success of coping with other stressors or threats. The ability to apply specific coping strategies that seem promising might depend on physical or cognitive functioning. Although research on training interventions has demonstrated that certain types of training make it possible to recover earlier levels of performance in several domains of physical and cognitive functioning, phenomena such as physical decline and dependency in old age (Baltes, 1996) demonstrate the limits of such efforts. Thus, despite the positive findings in physical and cognitive training studies, age-related decline in health domains becomes a challenge for all adults in older age. It has been argued within the conservation of resource theory (Hobfoil et al., 2017) that stress occurs when key resources are threatened with loss, are lost, or when there is a failure to gain central resources after significant effort. According to this theory, individuals strive to retain, foster, and protect the things they value. There are studies that show that growing old alone (i.e. in terms of calendric age) is strongly correlated with the number of physical diseases or correctly solved memory tasks but not (strongly) correlated with general well-being (Baltes & Mayer, 1999). The well-replicated finding that indicators of well-being and mental health do not decrease until very old age demonstrates, however, that older adults are obviously able to cope with these adversities.

The role of intentions

With regard to adversity and stress, maintenance of one’s self-worth or subjective control can be achieved by intentionally planned reactions and by automatic processes of which the individual is not aware. Strategies of self-regulation encompass efforts to receive support or to enhance the efficacy of action radius through competence training. In advanced age, it becomes increasingly difficult to compensate for deficits, and I have already introduced accommodative coping forms (goal disengagement, re-engagement, re-evaluation, downward comparison) that enable individuals to accept their situation (Brandtstadter, 2016; see also Heckhausen et al., 2010). However, what do the different functions of assimilative and accommodative coping (i.e. maintaining action competencies and stabilizing subjective well-being) mean in terms of positive development or successful ageing? Many people who are faced with (e.g. age-related) adversities are confronted with the following questions: How can we live in accordance with our usual standards, or what can we do to avoid negative consequences? A general answer that is appropriate for every single case is not possible. According to the dual-process model (e.g. Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002), intentional efforts are dysfunctional and should be accommodated flexibly when action resources are no longer available. Individuals are often quite different in what they value as success or failure and what they see or choose as an appropriate option for reaching their goals (Klinger & Cox, 2011). Whether people evaluate a concrete situation, for instance, a consequence of their effort, as success or failure, depends on their momentary causal attributions (e.g. whether they feel responsible) and predominant evaluation criteria. Human development and the process of growing older has been described in terms of gains and losses or growth and decline (Brandtstadter, 2006; Heckhausen et al., 1989). I give attention to this pair of opposites because it seems important for a more comprehensive understanding of what positive development means.

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