What is

Resilience is more than merely “bouncing back”

Our research shows that being a resilient person, community or society is more than just being able to bounce back from adversity. As our understanding of resilience expands, we learn that resilience includes the following traits:

  1. Resilience Requires Evolution
    Resilience thinking can help when confronted with a major disturbance to the system. When adapting to adversity, people, families, businesses and communities can learn coping skills and make creative use of available resources.
  2. Resilience is Context Based
    Resilience depends on point of view. For example, after a deployment the warrior, spouse, children, unit and community all define differently the successful reintegration into home life.
  3. The Environment Matters
    Resilience is a two-way street: resilience thinking should not fall on our warfighters alone. Society must accommodate those who serve. The same is the case for survivors of natural disasters who need assistance in the face of recovery. It’s essential that the community open its eyes and arms to support those affected.
  4. Resilience is Being Prepared
    Resilience thinking includes learning from prior experiences, anticipating future needs and actively preparing. Specific personal and community systems’ planning can prevent or mitigate some calamity.
  5. Resilience Requires Transformation
    When returning to normal is impossible, we must move forward. People, families, businesses, and communities struggle and grow to adapt in face of adversity and adopt a “new normal.”

What does
the Science say?

What Does the Science Say?

A Service member’s readiness for war includes more than a physical fitness test and battle training. Ensuring optimal performance, resilience and recovery requires a more holistic approach.

In 2009 then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen began an effort to create a framework that encompassed all branches of the service and incorporated the wellbeing of Service member families affected by deployments and the resulting consequences. In November 2009, Adm. Mullen tasked the Consortium for Human and Military Performance at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, host a workshop of leading health specialists.

Samueli Institute coordinated the event and contributed significantly to the establishment of comprehensive fitness principles that were subsequently outlined in a special issue of Military Medicine icon-pdf-small.

Total-Force-Fitness-for-the-21st-Century_A-New-Paradigm_Page_001“Total Force Fitness is more than a physical fitness; it is the sum total of the many facets of individuals, their families, and the organization in which they serve. It is a state of being.” Adm. Mullen, from the introduction to the special issue.

Because resilience and readiness is based on so many domains, studying resilience from a single domain is insufficient because it separates the person from their environment.

Samueli Institute advocated for a cross-discipline approach, which allows for a complete understanding of resilience of a whole person within his or her environment.

In 2013, Samueli Institute convened a meeting of experts in the fields of biology, engineering, sociology, medicine and psychology, and others to build an interdisciplinary model for understanding resilience. This meeting marked the beginning of a collaborative study of resilience and how to bridge the current gaps.


For over 40 years, research surrounding the concept of resilience has evolved into a process rather than an assumed trait of an individual. Several factors go into an individual’s ability to achieve resilience, these include: environment, emotional support, point-of-view, preparation and transformation.

Resilience was first used in the 1800s as a way to describe the elastic memory of wood and metals. Materials typically have two options upon experiencing stress or strain: return to normal or break. In people, there is a third option: to use the stress or strain to grow.


The concept of resilience as a study first appeared in the 1970s in the field of psychopathology, traumatic stress and poverty. Early research examined children in Hawaii who grew up with alcoholic or mentally ill parents. Two-thirds of the children exhibited destructive behaviors in their teen years, while one-third of the group did not. Researchers labeled this group as resilient.


Total Force Fitnessi formed within the military as a health model that facilitates the wellbeing of the Service member with the whole-person in mind.


Led by Samueli Institute, nearly 40 researchers and thought leaders worked to define resilience and create a testable model and to assess the impact of treatments aimed at enhancing health outcomes and promoting resilience.


Over the course of a year, Samueli Institute worked with three communities to identify, assess and moderate deep dialogue surrounding the unique needs of each community and moving forward to achieve a well community.

How Does
it Work?


Avoiding trauma can be impossible. People experience bereavement, life-threatening or life-changing illness, serious medical problems of their children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage.

Merely experiencing stress does not cause growth; however growth comes from the struggle to cope with the disruptions—not from the event itself.

Psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun describe five areas of growth reported by people who have experienced traumatic events:ii

  • Discovery of new opportunities and possibilities that were not present before
  • Closer relationships with others, especially others who suffer
  • Greater appreciation for life
  • Greater sense of personal strength: “If I lived through that, I can face anything”
  • Spiritual growth

Staying the same is impossible after experiencing the stress of war, the loss of a limb, or enduring a major illness. Although impossible to regain a pre-trauma state, people can be transformed by their experiences and go on to experience positive, life-affirming lives.

For individuals who are faced with adversity, there are several factors that contribute to reaching a state of resilience: psychology, social background, relationships and being able to reach a level of preparedness. All of these facets allow the individual to internalize a traumatic event, cope, survive and thrive.

For Service members, the military created a health model, Total Force Fitness that approaches resiliency from a holistic angle.



In order to achieve wellness within a community, activists, officials and neighbors must band together to address the core issues that challenge that community. Change cannot be accomplished through the efforts of the few, but through the collaborative efforts of many.

Factors that contribute to the ability for a community to overcome and thrive include: history, economics, social aspects, culture, education and psychological components.


When communities use resilience thinking the community—people, families, businesses and organizations—can better adapt to stresses and major trauma whether they are anticipated or not.

Working alone and collaboratively communities can set priorities to make beneficial changes that build wellness, wellbeing and prosperity in good times, and prepare for, respond to and recover from bad times. Healthy resilient communities might:

  • Align existing personal, family and community resilience, fitness, and wellbeing related goals across organizational boundaries;
  • Seek convergences of purpose, and recognize existing assets;
  • Share key principles about personal and community resilience, anchored by positive behaviors, attitudes and habits;
  • Establish practical and locally meaningful resilience, wellbeing, and readiness measures/metrics; and
  • Encourage community members and leaders to discover what works and do more of it.

In the
Real World

In 2012 the W.K Kellogg Foundation funded Samueli Institute to develop a fresh approach to community wellness that could serve as a scalable model for communities across the country.

In 2012 the W.K Kellogg Foundation funded Samueli Institute to develop a fresh approach to community wellness that could serve as a scalable model for communities across the country.

The end goal was simple: reverse the trend of declining health impacting multiple demographics and income levels across the U.S. as documented in the Institute of Medicine study, Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.

Samueli Institute began by convening stakeholders from communities, as well as activists, academics and policymakers to develop a process in which the strengths of a community were tapped and a deep dialogue was created across all stakeholders. Once this process was developed the communities began to create their own wellness.

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  • Grappling with the continual aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans East, a large section of the city situated east of the Industrial Canal, north of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Pontchartrain, was hit hard by the storm and the more than 65,000 lives continue to recover from the impact to this day.
  • The Well Community Project teamed with a local non-profit, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) in the community and learned more about the effects of the storm from residents that Katrina continues to have on their lives almost ten years later.
  • Through Wisdom Circles, neighbors were able to connect with each other and through deep dialogue were able to begin the process of healing.


  • While other efforts of the Well Community Project encompassed an entire town, or large section of a city, the focus of Detroit was concentrated on a little more than a square mile, the neighborhood of Springwells Village in southwest Detroit.
  • Grantee Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI) worked with residents to address the challenges of the community: safety concerns and blight.
  • By engaging the youth of the neighborhood, UNI was able to transform vacant, blighted areas into pocket parks and community green spaces.


  • The city of Indianola in the Mississipi Delta region had experienced decades of racial and economic divide that has paralyzed the community’s ability to find common ground among residents.
  • After months of meetings and deep personal interactions, the city and its residents resulted in shared vision and purpose as the community worked to understand the racial, historical and economic issues that the residents dealt with. The act of communicating and sharing experiences helped the city to understand their diversity and move forward with the purpose of improving their community.

Dig Deeper


Learn more and access resources

Interface Focus icon-pdf-small – Samueli Institute’s efforts to look beyond the traditionally siloed way of studying resilience and instead looks at how the whole system contributes to how individuals and societies respond and recover from traumatic experiences. iii

Well Community Project icon-pdf-small – Samueli Institute worked with communities in Detroit, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. The results were showcased among the participants and with policymakers and investors at the Well Community Summit on April 9-10, 2015.

The Future
of Resilience

The end of a deployment is an exciting time for a military family. But life doesn’t always pick up right where it left off. For most families, the adjustment is challenging as the Service member weaves back into the family-fold. The transition back to daily life, called reintegration, can last months or even years.

Although the difficulties of reintegration are well-known, the factors that lead to a successful experience are less so.

As part of its work with the military, Samueli Institute has assembled a multi-disciplinary team of experts to study resilience and reintegration. On June 23 and 24, 2015, subject matter experts met at Samueli Institute in Alexandria, VA, to review the prototype of a forecasting model that addresses successful reintegration of warriors back into civilian life following combat deployment.

By understanding what factors add to resilience and those that detract from it, leaders can better support reintegration of the Service member into family, garrison activities, and civil society following combat deployment.

In addition, effective support programs targeted at these factors could be developed to better prepare and support military families as they undergo the potentially challenging and multi-faceted process of reintegration.

i Military Medicine: Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century 2010 Vol. 175, No. 8.


iii Sprengel, M., Jain, S., Berry, K., Ives, J., & Jonas, W. Towards a Systems Model of Resilience. InterfaceFocus. 2014. 4(5).