What does it take to be an effective and happy aid worker, not just for a few intense months or years, but over a lifetime?
A recent white paper published by the Garrison Institute on “The Human Dimensions of Resilience” demonstrates how certain contemplative practices can strengthen personal resilience. Integrating findings from more than 280 interdisciplinary research studies, the paper argues that under the right conditions, personal resilience can also be contagious.
In other words, strengthening one’s own resilience and health could be part of a chain reaction that leads to colleagues and peers being more resilient and healthy.
So what, you may ask, are “contemplative practices,” exactly? The paper defines them as “a collection of methods intended to systematically train the mind and body,” and it specifically discusses meditation and yoga as the practices that have been most extensively researched. A broader description of contemplative practices from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website includes as examples “various forms of meditation, focused thought, time in nature, writing, contemplative arts, and contemplative movement.”
This is not such a radically new idea. Weh Yeoh recently talked about the transformative effect of “making time to make myself a cup of tea and stare out the window” and practising gratitude. Marianne Elliott, author of Zen Under Fire and co-creator of 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers, has talked about how yoga helped her remain sane in Kabul. Alessandra Pigni, psychologist, organisational consultant and author of the blog Mindfulnext, often writes about how mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence are essential to effective aid work and healthy aid workers.
Even if we haven’t thought of them as contemplative, the value of such practices is known to many of us. But the Garrison Institute White Paper is the first time (as far as I know) that a comprehensive scientific argument has been published to explain why and how they help aid workers be more resilient in the face of stress.
“Resilience” is a buzzword often invoked in relation to emergency preparedness and response, or perhaps environmental work. But what does it mean to talk about personal resilience in aid workers? The paper notes that “…individuals considered to possess resilience have a greater capacity to endure and even thrive in response to challenging circumstances.” It frames resilience not just as getting back to baseline, but adapting and thriving, in effect turning stress and trauma into material for positive growth.
The authors list Ten Resilience Traits, including such things as helping others (motivated by empathy and compassion), self-awareness, effective problem-solving skills and seeking help. Those familiar with Daniel Goleman and Emotional Intelligence will recognize these themes.
The paper then identifies five dimensions through which these Ten Resilience Traits can be influenced: changing the way we relate to others; modifying brain processes and structures; mediating our physiological responses to stress (e.g., the flooding of cortisol and adrenaline in your system, muscle tension, and chronic shallow breathing); even gene expression. It cites a wide range of scientific research to explain how contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga work on each of these fronts.
The paper also features appendices on “Resilience and Stress” and “Modeling Community Resilience,” which are less technical and especially useful for aid workers. If like me you work in community resilience programming, the second appendix may be of particular interest. It maps models of ecosystem resilience onto human communities (such as communities of aid workers), and draws on epidemiology to describe “the spread of resilient behaviours in social networks.”
The upshot is that there’s a solid scientific basis for how and why things like meditation, yoga and gratitude practices can help us manage the challenges of aid work in a healthier and more constructive way, and how they can contribute to training designed to strengthen resilience traits. What makes this even more interesting to me is the idea of resilience spreading through a kind of positive social contagion. If, as the white paper argues, strengthening personal resilience can impact other people, and affect organisations and communities, then investing in resilience training could have exponential returns.
The Garrison Institute offers a Contemplative Based Resilience Training program for aid workers based on the science presented in the white paper. The Institute is conducting further research on the effectiveness of contemplative practices in improving aid worker psychosocial resilience over time. If this and other studies underway corroborate the findings of the white paper, it will help bolster the argument for aid agencies to adopt resilience training more widely, and make it a professional development standard in the future.
The full white paper can be downloaded free of charge from the Garrison Institute website here.
Featured image is Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park – San Francisco, California. Photo from Wikimedia.