Keep growing

Whether you’re reeling from a bad-news day or staring down an existential crisis, learning to bounce back isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. After all, our ability to lead a meaning-filled life depends on drowning out the sad-trombone sound in our heads and changing the soundtrack—but how? “It’s very human to focus on what’s wrong and poke holes,” says Heather Cray of Dal’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies. “But the concepts of restoration and resilience give us the tools to move beyond challenges into solutions.” Here’s what three experts shared about tried-and-true coping strategies:

Plug in to nature

It’s all too easy to spend hours doomscrolling through negative online news headlines or shaking our fists at the TV, but that wasted time doesn’t boost our bounce-back potential. “We hear a lot about increased levels of hopelessness and helplessness these days, and it’s no wonder,” says Kent Williams of Dal’s Rowe School of Business. “We’re living inside a pandemic while we watch dystopian zombie movies and observe the realities of climate change.” His solution? Disconnecting from the virtual world and entering the nature that surrounds us, whether that means a wilderness hike or stroll through an urban park. “Research shows that when we experience nature, things change; these activities decrease cortisol, and add to our perspective and connectedness.”

Celebrate small victories

After stints studying re-vegetation in the Arctic, where permafrost disturbances meant witnessing significant positive change would take hundreds of years, Dr. Cray had an epiphany: she could switch her specialty to tallgrass prairie ecosystems and be able to participate in building a more immediate before-and-after. “It’s amazing to watch life return to an old abandoned piece of lawn,” she says. “Seeing that I could affect tangible change in five-to-ten years felt empowering. It taught me that it’s necessary to do the long work, but also important to dig into the short work and take the little wins.”

Join the animal world

Pets help release stress in numerous ways: they provide companionship, force us to be more active, and elevate our levels of calming dopamine and serotonin. So, it’s a good-news story when pet adoptions skyrocket, as they did in 2020. “We know that human-animal bonds are beneficial to our health, but resilience is systemic,” says Haorui Wu, an assistant professor at Dal’s School of Social Work. “When we protect animals, both as pets and as co-inhabitants of our planet, it improves our own resilience capacity.” He cautions, though, that pet ownership is a long-term commitment. If you’re not ready for the work and responsibility of a furry friend, consider donating to an animal-welfare charity for a dose of instant feel-good instead.

Look forward

Having a roadmap for success and happiness is key, but expect a few detours along the way—especially when it comes to transformation. “If you don’t have clear and realistic goals for what you want to change in your life or the world, it’s easy to get lost in the process,” says Dr. Cray. In her own field of research, for example, it wouldn’t be realistic to turn an urban park into an old-growth forest in five years, but she could hope to add biodiversity and enhance the sense of place. “What restoration teaches us is to make a plan, then constantly assess, monitor and modify. This way, your goal isn’t perfection but forward momentum—and that’s how we build a better and more functional world.”

Ditch the fear of failure

It’s time to broaden our definition beyond profit and into purpose, says Dr. Williams. “In our industrial world, we position graduates of business school for ‘success,’ but that’s code for ‘How can I make more money?’” he says. “But we need to talk about other definitions of success and one of them is embracing failure. Failure is a starting point for personal and societal growth, and that’s where our biggest learning can be.”

Know thyself

Developing—and then flexing—our self-reflective muscle can help us both personally and professionally, according to Dr. Williams. “Slowing down and spending some conscious time with yourself can be a powerful gateway to seeing things differently,” he says. In business settings, heated interactions escalate quickly when we react to someone else’s emotions. Our mirror neurons pick up on the other person’s energy, which in turn leads us to make assumptions and pivot to rebuttal. But when we mirror calmness and empathy, a productive dialogue is possible. “If you can be a leader and say, ‘I see that you’re upset, can you help me understand why?’ and then listen deeply, you begin to understand where the other person is coming from in their perspective, or they might tell you what’s really going on. And that’s dialogue, and the connective tissue of resilience.”

Get involved

In times of loneliness or isolation, frustrations build when we focus on what Dr. Wu calls “top-down” strategies—in other words, government responses to our own crises. He says flipping the script and taking power into our own hands with community engagement is directly related to our ability to recover. “We know that the elderly community has been vulnerable in this pandemic, but we’ve seen many good actions in support of this community, like retired nurses returning to hospitals, or elderly people activating their own networks to help deliver groceries or medicine,” he says. “When we tap into shared resources and expertise, we improve out outcomes.”