We were surprised by how well many people weathered the pandemic’s psychological challenges. In order to make sense of these patterns, we looked back to a classic psychology finding: People are more resilient than they themselves realize. We imagine that negative life events—losing a job or a romantic partner—will be devastating for months or years. When people actually experience these losses, however, their misery tends to fade far faster than they imagined it would.
The capacity to withstand difficult events also applies to traumas such as living through war or sustaining serious injury. These incidents can produce considerable anguish, and we don’t want to minimize the pain that so many suffer. But study after study demonstrates that a majority of survivors either bounce back quickly or never show a substantial decline in mental health.
Human beings possess what some researchers call a psychological immune system, a host of cognitive abilities that enable us to make the best of even the worst situation. For example, after breaking up with a romantic partner, people may focus on the ex’s annoying habits or relish their newfound free time.