Resiliency and positivity in the new year

By Leah Persky, PhD & Certified Family Life Educator  • Family Life Education Manager

This year has been one of the hardest times in recent memory for millions of Americans and people across the globe. The challenges we have faced and will continue to face in the months ahead are almost unthinkable to our former selves. These challenges have been many, diverse, and are all too familiar in the news; the pandemic, political and social unrest, and the ugly face of institutionalized racism have highlighted the many injustices and real short-comings of our modern American society. These injustices have occurred on the personal, community, national and international stage.

While we are familiar with these challenges, many of us are also quite aware of and grateful for the good things we have in our lives. I am sure all of us have experienced hard days, became focused on the negative, and may have not been able to pause to appreciate the good things. I have had many days like this. It is so easy to get lost in the immediate challenges, chores, work, and decisions; to be over-whelmed by the uncertainty, and to mourn all that we have lost.

I think now is a good time to pause and take stock. We have made it so far; we are strong. Our resiliency, creativity, caring and desire to make the world a better place is so apparent, we don’t have to look too far for evidence of it. There are many examples of kindness virtually and in-person. From the small act of paying for someone’s meal behind you in the drive-thru line to kids leaving out snacks and kind messages to delivery drivers; increase of more than 200 percent in pet adoptions through the Animal Humane Society this year; massive growth in availability and access to online mental health supports; concern for the rising economic and racial inequality in our institutions; and real opportunities to learn about and act on anti-racism in communities across the globe, these are real wins and real bright spots. We also cannot ignore the power of intelligence, innovation, research, and dedication that has brought the world several effective COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of months. These things we cannot ignore or push to the side – they are real and good.

So what is on your list of bright spots for the year? Here is mine: adopting two sweet and furry friends from local animal shelters; enjoying the natural and quiet beauty of my neighborhood; Netflix; appreciating the little things with my kids like baking, biking and getting ice cream; being connected to an amazing online fitness community; my neighbors; being part of a wonderful organization that makes a real positive impact on the lives of so many; being supported by my family and potato chips! 

Yes, there have been many hard days and days when the house is a huge mess. Days I didn’t sleep well and am tired, have yelled at the kids, distance learning did not go to plan, iPads have been misplaced, the kitchen is a disaster and no one feels like cooking. But what did we do? We continued on – maybe I laid down and locked the door with a pillow over my head for five minutes, but then I got up, found some paper plates and made pancakes. 

Humans are resilient and surviving a pandemic is no simple or little task. People have survived far worse and continue to do so today. Look no further than the tragic conflict in Ethiopia as evidence of heart-wrenching tragedy and human suffering. Or maybe you look back one generation or two or three to see the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust. These are horrible events and we might imagine how we might have survived them if it was us. We can show ourselves and history what we are made of right now. Humans are born to survive and live for tomorrow and we can train ourselves to see the good and the bright spots, even if it is not our natural inclination.

We can train or re-wire our brains to focus more on the positive with something called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to our ability to make new pathways in our brain, essentially re-organizing our brain with time and focused attention. With a dedicated effort and frequent practice, we can work to activate or re-activate parts of our brain – we are essentially creating new habits or practices that we want to cultivate.

If we strive to see the world through rosier glasses, we must identify behaviors that will allow us to do that: create a positive mantra that you come back to many times a day, create a gratitude journal, take time outside every day, exercise, meditate, connect with people you love, set aside time to do things that make you feel good. You get the idea. Through the regular practice of these positive behaviors, we can work towards making ourselves feel a bit better and create new positive habits. These habits will stick with us and help us get through challenging times. They do this by helping us to build our resilience and increasing our ability to cope with the challenges that will come our way. Research demonstrates that it takes just 21 days to build a new habit and let go of old habits that may not serve you well, so what are your waiting for?

There is so much focus in many schools about building resilient children. I think we need to take this further and think about how we can build and grow resilient adults. Adults can and do continue to grow throughout their lives and there is so much compelling research about the potential of neuroplasticity.   While the exact numbers are up for debate, psychologists note that a good portion of our own happiness and how we feel about the world is under our control. Of course inherited genes and life-experience also matter a great deal, but we each have so much power and so much potential to tap into the positive, even during the pandemic and other hard times. 

What new habits do you want to form in 2021? What old habits are not serving you well? Take time to answer these questions and focus on the good, despite the dark times. This is something I plan to do when I ring in 2021. I hope you will do this too. Here is to being happier and more resilient in 2021; we have certainly shown ourselves we are capable and stronger than we imagined.

We would love to see your gratitude list. What are the things you are thankful for? Feel free to email me at