” I am not a superwoman! You don’t get through tragedies …on your own,” said the speaker on CBC of surviving the trauma of seeing, at age 19, her father axed to death, and later, experiencing a divorce, the removal of a brain tumour and the loss of her house in a fire.
Getting past her tragedies took resilience, and as she pointed out, more than herself. And this is the theme of Michael Ungar’s book, Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success—the ability to move beyond the damaging effects of life events and how the capacity for resilience comes about.
Ungar’s message, demonstrated and reported from research studies and illustrated with anecdotes drawn from a wide range of settings, is that resilience is not “a set of personal qualities that we attribute to rugged individuals.” Rather, we get through life’s tragedies as “resourced individuals” when given an environment that provides what we need to meet our challenges; it is “services that make us resilient.” To underscore his argument, Ungar demotes the sacred cows of our culture—the self-help movement, the cult of positive thinking and even the current trend of mindfulness-based intervention. His pronouncement: our environment is more important than our brain.
Ungar’s writing style is engaging, direct and conversational—if one allows space for the occasional digression or example of academic obscurity. He also acknowledges the complexity of the roots of resilience as providing an ongoing problem for researchers: “Most people have good lives in spite of bad starts—why?”
The book is a virtual encyclopedia, seemingly an exhaustive documentation of the sources of resilience and the conditions for success in life, with references to familiar and infamous figures of our world—Kim Jong-un, Osama Bin Laden, the Klu Klux Klan—and mentions of current issues such as Brexit, robotics, epigenetics, clean energy and the millennials.
In his chapter on Social Justice, he raises the social and political issues of society, such as vaccination and the concept of “herd immunity,” health-care and politics, noting “A truly advanced society takes care of the most vulnerable before it goes to the moon.”
The pages are sprinkled with quotable nuggets of the author’s conclusions.
About change: “It is easier to change environments than people”
About parenting: “Add a baby, grow your mind”
About work: “Life-long learning is no longer an option”
About where we live: “Urban planners can do just as much for our health as diet doctors and fitness coaches…”
Ungar’s conclusions are balanced and his outlook hopeful. He believes changing our environment could realistically achieve outcomes which include “empty jails, fewer people addicted to drugs, less police, the end of the obesity epidemic, far fewer unplanned and teenage pregnancies, better academic achievement and a healthier, less violent population,” within a generation.
From time to time, someone uncovers our blind spots and brings to the forefront of our attention a perspective we have overlooked or suppressed and a shift in the thinking of a culture is generated. Michael Ungar’s book Change Your World has the potential to provide such a shift. ■