Tag Archives: resilience

Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong, professor of human development, has examined the emotional impacts of self isolation. He says while self isolation may intensify feelings of loneliness, it’s also an opportunity to connect virtually and learn from each other.

Self-quarantining with a significant other is another opportunity for growth. In a post for Scientific American, The (Potential) Upside of Sheltering in Place for Couples, Dr. Ong and co-author Richard Slatcher, proposes that enforced togetherness could strengthen bonds as partners turn to each other for support.

Dr. Ong and his co-investigator, Tara Gruenewald, associate professor of psychology at Chapman University, have been awarded a grant to study how prosocial behavior can lessen the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on mental, physical, and social well-being. They will be recruiting a national sample of 2,000 adults for a four-month, three-wave longitudinal study, the scholars will examine whether a brief prosocial intervention can alter perceptions of loneliness and enhance optimal pandemic coping behaviors.

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, September 3, 2013



Being in the minority in an ethnically diverse crowd is distressing, regardless of your ethnicity, unless you have a sense of purpose in life, reports a Cornell developmental psychologist.

Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, led the study, which was conducted on Chicago trains. The findings shed light on how people encounter diversity in everyday settings at a time when the United States is more racially mixed than ever, with demographic trends pointing to a more multicultural melting pot in decades to come.

In two experiments, college students reported their mood as they rode a train from Chicago’s North Side toward the city center for 14 consecutive stops, while Burrow’s team privately recorded naturally occurring changes to the overall ethnic and gender makeup of the car’s passengers during the trip. For the first study, all 111 participants filled out a short questionnaire to assess their life purpose prior to boarding. In the second study, before riding, half of the 116 participants completed a 10-minute writing exercise about life purpose, while the others responded to a question about movies.

Participants’ negative mood heightened as the ratio of people from different ethnic backgrounds aboard the train increased, regardless of their own race and after controlling for various factors, such as an individual’s personality, familiarity with metro trains and perceived safety of the surrounding neighborhoods. In both studies, however, those who had a sense of purpose or had written about their life aims did not experience the worsened mood associated with riding among a diverse crowd.

“This research is among the first to show negative reactivity to diversity occurs dynamically within people, and not just between them,” Burrow said. “That is, it is not simply that people who reside in more ethnically diverse communities experience greater distress than those living in less ethnically diverse communities, as suggested by past studies. Now we can see that when a person is in a more ethnically diverse setting, they feel more distressed than when they are in less ethnically diverse settings.”

But the negative feelings vanished in purpose-driven individuals. Burrow, whose research focuses on the value of purpose, particularly among teens and young adults, suspects that it enabled participants to look beyond themselves to appreciate their role in the world and to build the psychological resilience necessary to overcome adversity.

“There is evidence that focusing on personally meaningful and valued goals can buffer the negative effects of stress by allowing individuals to reinforce a sense of who they are,” he said. “This suggests that creating opportunities for individuals to cultivate a sense of purpose is important as we move forward as a society.”

Burrow warned that the study should not be misread as rejecting multiculturalism, even if diversity can be distressing for people.

“Neither previous research nor our interpretation of the current findings suggest that diversity is inherently problematic,” Burrow said. “In fact, there are many reasons to believe ethnically diverse friendships, classrooms and workplaces are optimal for high-quality outcomes.”

The study, “Derailed by Diversity?: Purpose Buffers the Relationship Between Ethnic Composition on Trains and Passenger Negative Mood,” was published online Aug. 27 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and was co-authored by Patrick Hill of Carleton University.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.



By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working memory deficits in young adults. Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used longitudinal data on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high chronic stress in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with working memory and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which children growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal responsiveness. Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Gary Evans

By Karene Booker

Cary Reid


Anthony Ong


A person's outlook on life can minimize -- or aggravate -- a person's chronic pain, reports a new Cornell study.

"While pain is a fact of life for many," says Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development at Cornell, "how people relate to their pain can either help or hinder healthy coping."

Ong and colleagues report that a person's habitual outlook on life and their ability to sustain positive emotions in the face of adversity or stress (what psychologists call psychological resilience) can make a dramatic difference in their experience of chronic pain, which afflicts millions of Americans, particularly the growing population of elderly.

The study, co-authored by M. Cary Reid, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Alex Zautra, professor of health psychology at Arizona State University, is published in the September 2010 issue of Psychology and Aging (Vol. 25, No. 3).

The researchers studied 72 women and 23 men, ages 52 to 95, at Weill Cornell who were diagnosed with chronic pain -- the average duration of pain was about eight years. The patients completed daily diaries for two weeks containing information about their emotions and experience of pain each day.

The researchers found a link between the patients' resilience, positive emotions and how much they then "catastrophized" about their pain. Some people with chronic pain tend have an exaggerated negative view of the actual or anticipated pain. This so-called "pain catastrophizing" makes the experience of pain worse and contributes to increased pain severity, disability and emotional distress, Ong said. It exacerbates anxiety and worry. Such negative emotions can potentially stimulate neural systems that produce increased sensitivity to pain. It can become a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, the researchers found that high-resilient individuals reported less day-to-day pain catastrophizing, compared with the low-resilient individuals. The findings also suggest that the day-to-day experience of positive emotions represent an active ingredient in what it means to be "resilient," Ong said.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that women with chronic pain tended to catastrophize more than men; there was also a stronger effect of positive emotion on pain catastrophizing in women.

"Daily experiences of positive emotions have the potential to counteract the sense of helplessness and focus on negativity that can make chronic pain so devastating," Ong said. "Based on the gender differences we found, interventions for women in particular may benefit from greater attention to sources of positive emotion."

The study was supported, in part, by the John A. Hartford Foundation and the National Institute on Aging.

Positive outlook also influences widowhood

Higher levels of psychological resilience before the death of a spouse appears to buffer the potentially devastating negative impact of spousal loss, reports a new Cornell study.

Widows and widowers with higher levels of psychological resilience before their spouses died had little change in their positive emotion several years later, compared with those with lower levels of pre-loss psychological resilience, who experienced marked declines in positive emotion following spousal loss.

"Our analysis demonstrated that psychological resilience is a significant predictor of positive emotion in the face of major life challenges," said lead author Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development, whose studied is published in Psychology and Aging (25:3). "And the maintenance of positive emotion has long-term consequences for well-being and health."

Ong and colleagues Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, and clinical psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University studied a subsample of adults in a survey that included information at two points in time, 10 years apart. During that time, 52 individuals had been widowed and had not remarried. This group was compared with 156 continuously married individuals selected to match the widowed adults in age, gender and education.

The survey included measures of positive emotions (e.g., how much time they felt cheerful), psychological resilience (e.g., the ability to see the positive side of a difficult situation), spousal strain and depressive symptoms.

The researchers also found that widowed participants who had had more conflict with their spouses had higher positive emotion scores than their low-strain counterparts. And vice versa, widowed adults who reported lower levels of prior spousal strain exhibited greater declines in positive emotion.

"It's important to realize that the impact of spousal loss may vary widely based on personal characteristics and marital context," Ong said. "Contrary to historical beliefs, the experience of positive emotion during bereavement is not unusual, but relatively common and may be a signal of healthy adjustment."

The study was supported, in part, by the National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Mental Health. The original study was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

-- Karene Booker

Anthony Ong

Print version

The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile (Kennedy, 1968)

What do we know about human well-being? The answer is surprising little, compared with what is known about human illness, dysfunction, and disease. Scientific progress on the positive side of human functioning—understanding what constitutes human flourishing and how it comes about—lags woefully behind strides on the negative side of health assessment, treatment, and research. But as Cornell developmental psychologist, Anthony Ong affirms, “The keys to the kingdom are changing hands.” Ong’s developmental research has documented the remarkable capacity of some individuals, from early life through old age, to thrive in the face of life’s challenges and setbacks.

Positive Emotions as a Basic Building Block of Flourishing in the Face of Adversity: Four Intersecting Pathways

In an effort to delineate the key features of human flourishing and resilience, Ong has conducted naturalistic studies and laboratory experiments that examine the enduring balm that positive emotions can provide for the stresses of life, even the stress of interpersonal loss. “When we first started to study the challenges associated with bereavement, the prevailing scientific view in the literature was that efforts to understand positive emotions should take a back seat while psychologists learn more about how to effectively treat the suffering generated by negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression. But then we began to ask the question, What if positive emotions could help to explain some of the problems that negative emotions produced?” Ong argues that positive emotions can have a wide range of effects on individual health and well-being. “When we look at the question in a multivariate way, we do not find a single, simple answer to the question of how positive emotions influence health. Instead, the most accurate assessment is to say that it is lifelong process that proceeds along at least four intersecting pathways.”

Positive emotions undo negative emotion arousal. Converging empirical work on positive emotions in Ong’s lab and others have raised the possibility that positive emotions are important facilitators of adaptive recovery, quieting or undoing the autonomic arousal generated by negative emotions. In laboratory studies in which positive and negative emotions are experimentally induced, Ong finds that positive emotions are linked to faster cardiovascular recovery from negative emotional arousal. Other investigations have confirmed the importance of positive emotions in fostering recovery from stressful major life events such as conjugal loss.

Positive emotions broaden attention and thinking. Ong is quick to point out that scientific evidence for the proposition that positive emotions broaden peoples’ modes of attention and thinking comes from two decades of pioneering experiments conducted by Cornell psychologist Alice Isen. “Professor Isen and her colleagues were the first to document that people experiencing positive affect show patterns of thought that are notably flexible, integrative, and efficient.” Ong is currently collaborating with Isen on a study funded by the National Institute of Aging (NIA) that explores the ways in which positive emotions may widen the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind when individuals are under stress.

Positive emotions fuel psychological resilience. What psychological traits are implicated in the generation and maintenance of positive emotions in the face of stress? An emerging adult literature suggests that individual differences in psychological resilience may account for the adaptive ways in which life stressors are encountered, managed, and transformed. Ong suggests that traits with functional properties associated with positive emotions (e.g., psychological resilience) may serve to strengthen resistance to stress by affording greater access to positive emotional resources, which, in turn, may help to provide a momentary respite from ongoing stressful experiences. In a series of coordinated experimental and individual difference studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ong and his colleagues have found that high-resilient individuals exhibit faster physiological and emotional recovery from stress. In one study, higher trait resilience was linked to quicker cardiovascular recovery following a laboratory stressor. In another study, higher trait resilience was associated with lower subsequent depressive symptoms. Most notably, the effect of trait resilience on duration of cardiovascular reactivity and depressive symptoms was mediated by subjective reports of positive emotion. Although far from definitive, Ong notes that the available empirical evidence suggests that psychological resilience is associated with resistance to and recovery from stressful life events, and positive emotions may be the underlying mechanism by which high-resilient individuals achieve their adaptive outcomes.

Positive emotions trigger emotional and physical well-being. By undoing lingering negative emotions, broadening peoples’ mindsets, and fueling psychological resilience, Ong maintains that over time positive emotions should also enhance peoples’ emotional and physical well-being. The results of a longitudinal study of bereaved widows Ong recently conducted suggest that psychological resilience enhances the mood-boosting effects of positive emotion, triggering an upward spiral of prolonged positive emotionality. However, Ong adds that “the capacity for positive emotional engagement in the context of stress has consequences that are not just emotional but physiological.” Ong suggests that deficits in positive emotions create a subtle but persistent difference in cardiovascular function that sets the stage for trouble in later life. In a study published in the journal of Psychology and Aging, Ong notes that “Although greater cardiovascular reactivity is generally interpreted as a marker for risk, increases in blood pressure are not inherently pathogenic. It may be slow or prolonged recovery from stress responses that portends risk to older adults. By accelerating cardiovascular recovery from daily negative emotions, positive emotions may function in the service of health by averting delays in adaptation to subsequent stressors. These effects, moreover, may be more evident in older adults due to the stability and centrality of quality social ties in late life.”

Based on his research findings, Ong concludes that the notion that positive emotions have adaptive value is no longer contestable, but what precisely this means for individual lives and societies has not been fully appreciated. Ong adds though that one thing is for sure: “When our positive emotions are in short supply—when we feel hemmed in by negative emotions such as fear and sadness—we become stuck in a rut and painfully predictable. But when our positive emotions are in ample supply—when we feel lifted by the centripetal force of our closest relationships—we take off and become generative, resilient versions of ourselves.”

Tips for Promoting Positive Emotions
1) Find meaning in everyday life through (a) reframing adverse events in a positive light; (b) infusing ordinary events with positive value; and (c) pursing and attaining realistic goals.

2) Explore relaxation techniques (e.g., imagery, muscle, and meditation exercises) that create conditions conducive to experiencing contentment and inner calmness.

3) Make connections by reaching out to others.

4) Engage in activities that you enjoy and find intrinsically motivating.

5)Take care of yourself by eating right, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity.

Further Resources
American Psychological Association (APA) Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers

American Psychological Association (APA) Resilience Guide for Teens

American Psychological Association (APA) Stress Tip Sheet


Ong, A. D., & Allaire, J. (2005). Cardiovascular intraindividual variability in later life: The influence of social connectedness and positive emotions. Psychology and Aging, 20, 476-485.

Ong, A. D., & Bergeman, C. S. (2004a). The complexity of emotions in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 59B, P55-60.

Ong, A. D., & Bergeman, C. S. (2004b). Resilience and adaptation to stress in later life: Empirical perspectives and conceptual implications. Ageing International, 29, 219-246.

Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., & Bisconti, T. L. (2004). The role of daily positive emotions during conjugal bereavement. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 59B, P158-167.

Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 730-749.

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