Developing Resiliency through the Creative and Critical Work of the Humanities

by Rex Nielson

Image of Professor Rex Nielson

In response to diverse and acute forms of political tension, social unrest, technological disruption, the recent global pandemic, and ongoing changes to our planet’s climate, researchers have increasingly turned their attention to the vulnerable conditions that define the human experience.[1] Scientists, for example, especially those working in the social sciences, have devoted considerable effort to understanding the circumstances that define adversity and that produce stress and anxiety in all its forms. Given this interest in better understanding the causes and solutions to anxiety, it is perhaps unsurprising that the last fifteen years have witnessed a dramatic increase in research on the topic of resilience.

Mental health professionals typically define resilience as the ability to maintain or regain mental health. They speak of resilience as the capacity to cope with or resist the negative effects of stress or adversity, the ability to withstand environmental risks of all kinds. Yet there exists disagreement concerning what conditions are most likely to produce resilience. Some psychologists point to resilience as a personality trait defined by “cognitive flexibility, social attachment, positive self-concepts, emotional regulation, positive emotions, spirituality, active coping, hardiness, optimism, hope, resourcefulness, and adaptability” (see Hermann et al.). Others note that our understanding of resilience must expand to include multiple levels of influence originating in social systems like families, social and educational groups, communities, and government services. Still others observe that resilience is impacted by a variety of broad cultural factors, including value systems that govern inter-personal relationships, determine gender roles, and condition forms of individual self-identification. Resilience is now the object of multidisciplinary approaches, ranging from psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and biological fields, including genetics, endocrinology, and neuroscience.

Despite these differences, recent findings emerging out of these very disparate disciplines do reveal some interesting patterns in how scholars define resilience. Biologists, for example, discuss resilience as the “return rate to equilibrium,” and psychologists likewise speak of resilience in terms of “bouncing-back” and recovery. In this sense, researchers frequently identify resilience both as (1) flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity to transform, and (2) a kind of recovery, a form of healing. In other words, resilient individuals—and resilient communities—manifest the ability to respond to complexity, uncertainty, trauma, and ever-changing environments in ways that promote healing and wholeness.

This year, the BYU Humanities Center will focus some of its attention on the relationship between resilience and creativity. How does the work of creativity contribute to developing resiliency in individuals and communities? What role does creativity play in enabling individuals to develop within ever-changing environments? How can creativity foster our capacity to adapt and transform? How might fostering understanding and appreciation for creative works enhance our ability to respond to complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and change? What role does creativity play in the processes of recovery and healing? Please join us as we look forward to learning more about how the creative and critical work of the Humanities can help us develop healthy resiliency while navigating the journey of life.

2023 – 2024


[1] Our own Humanities Center has convened symposia and sponsored numerous events around the topic of vulnerability. See, for example, these related essays: