Adaptive capacity is the ability to transcend adversity and emerge stronger than before. Like a phoenix—the Greek mythical bird that perished by fire and then rose from its ashes to live another day—life demands resilience, the ability to survive even the most negative experiences.

There are many models for successful living. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard thought that people could be divided into types—some are drifters and others are drivers, some are takers and others are givers. He believed the fully functioning person would not drift aimlessly through life but would be guided by a sense of purpose, and he believed the fully developed person would honor, protect, and care for others. Furthermore, he believed these qualities would add to the well-being of the individual and society. To personal commitment and caring relationships, one should add having a sense of personal control, maintaining a positive mental attitude, and keeping life in perspective to describe the characteristics of a hardy personality.

Personal Assessment

The characteristics of a hardy personality belong potentially to everyone, but hardy people have more of these and to a greater degree. The following questionnaire features the five characteristics of a hardy personality. Read through each characteristic and then rate yourself on how well you embody each category.


The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlisle said, “We don’t fear extinction, we fear extinction without meaning.” This entails having a purpose in life and being true to one’s values. The hardy personality thinks he knows what is important and that he is doing the right thing. This translates into commitment that gives tremendous strength to overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of adversity. The committed person is emotionally strong, and this emotional strength, like a wonder drug, results in physical strength as well. Only when we are committed will we make a difference in the world. Rate Yourself on Commitment (low, average, high) _______


In Don Juan in Hell, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Hell is to drift, heaven is to steer.” The hardy personality believes this idea fully and seeks to control her own life. When asked the question “Who is in charge, the world or you?” the hardy personality’s answer is “Me.” She sees herself as the master of her own destiny, the captain of her own ship, not the pawn of fate. What gives legitimacy to this feeling is the fact that the hardy personality has mastered and employs effective time management principles. Rate Yourself on Sense of Control and Time Management (low, average, high) _______


The hardy personality lives by William James’s prescription: “Change your attitude—change your life.” He recognizes the influence of mind over matter and, therefore, chooses to think positive thoughts that elicit positive moods that result in positive actions. He emphasizes possibilities over problems, strengths over weaknesses, and potentialities over deficiencies, both in the situation and in himself. Because the hardy personality is an optimist, he is energized and focused; and with energy and focus, he indeed achieves his goals. Rate Yourself on Attitude (low, average, high) _______


The hardy personality keeps life in perspective and doesn’t get upset over small matters. She realizes, in the final analysis, most matters are small matters. Consequently, she doesn’t develop a full-blown fight-or-flight response to every minor hassle, obstacle, or setback. In this way, she avoids unnecessary states of alarm and vigilance leading to exhaustion and breakdown. One way she does this is to remember what is important, asking: “Is this a hill worth dying for?” All else is viewed with tolerance and patience as matters of style, taste, and individual differences that can enrich the world. Rate Yourself on Keeping Things in Perspective (low, average, high) _______


For the masses of people, most of the time, concern for others is the most important characteristic of a hardy personality. He develops caring relationships in his home life, work-life, and community at large. He gives tender loving care (TLC) to all creatures, great and small; and as he sows, so he reaps. The hardy personality gives love and, in turn, is beloved. In this process, physiological responses are generated that are life-enhancing and life-prolonging, helping to explain the hardy personality’s ability to overcome illness and disease and maintain good health in spite of heavy responsibilities and demanding schedules. Rate Yourself on Relationships (low, average, high) _______


If your ratings were mostly “high,” you embody the characteristics of a hardy personality. Your life is characterized by an effective pattern of personal commitment, a sense of control, a positive attitude, a balanced perspective, and caring relationships. If your scores are average, you do some things well but need to improve in others. To improve, focus on low spots and take positive steps to change yourself or the situation. If your scores are low, you should begin immediately to address deficiencies. Advice and support from others can be helpful. Attention and a sustained effort are required.


Adaptive capacity is based on the five characteristics of a hardy personality. These are moving targets you must keep your eye upon. This is a lifelong challenge, meaning that having a high score today doesn’t guarantee a high score tomorrow. Also, it’s never too late to improve. Doing so at any point in time is worthwhile, resulting in a fuller and more satisfying life.

Personal Commitment

Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If you purposefully choose to be less than you can be, then you are surely doomed to be unhappy.” As inspiration for living a purposeful and committed life, consider the words of Theodore Roosevelt: The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena... Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those cold and timid souls who live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.

Rx Commitment begins with choosing to be an active participant in life, not a bystander watching the world go by. Set a goal that gives meaning to your life.

Sense of Control

Benjamin Franklin asked, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for it is the stuff that life is made of. Take time to think, it is the source of power... take time to play, it is the secret of youth... take time to read, it is the basis of knowledge... take time to love, it is the essence of life... take time for friends, it is the road to happiness... take time to laugh, it is music for the soul... take time to work, it is the price of success.” To keep on track, Franklin would start each morning with a question, “What good shall I do today?”, and he would end each day with the question, “What good have I done today?”

Rx For a sense of control, keep a daily “to-do” list in line with your goals with priorities indicated, work on first things first, and check off tasks as they are completed.

Positive Attitude

The historian Will Durant described how he looked for happiness in knowledge and found only disillusionment. He then sought happiness in travel and found weariness. In wealth, he found worry and discord. He looked for happiness in his own writing and was only fatigued. One day he saw a woman waiting in a tiny car with a sleeping baby in her arms. A man descended from the train and came over and gently kissed the woman, and then the baby, very softly, so as not to awaken him. The family drove off and left Durant with a stunning realization of the true nature of happiness. He relaxed and discovered, every normal function of life holds some delight.

Rx Take pleasure from the little things in life, and live by the WWII song: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. in-between.

Balanced Perspective

Cardiologist Robert Eliot relates a personal account showing the importance of keeping things in perspective: “Wise men speak of the moment of clarity—that instant when absolute knowledge presents itself. My moment of clarity came as I was doubled up in a bathroom at a Nebraska community hospital 200 miles from home. . . . Immediately, I diagnosed my own condition: myocardial infarction. Later, as the nurses helped me into a hospital bed, I remember saying with astonishment. “I’m having a heart attack.” I was 44 years old. . . . I had worked tirelessly for acceptance within the medical community, and yet efforts to establish my own cardiovascular center had failed. This was a bitter pill for someone who had always defined life in terms of victory or defeat. . . . Something had to change; and I asked myself, “Is any of this worth dying for?” Fortunately for me, my answer was “No!” I had looked into the abyss and decided to stop sweating the small stuff. Pretty soon, I saw that it was all small stuff.”

Rx Answer three questions: 1. What is the worst possible thing that can happen here? 2. On a scale of 1 to 10, with life-ending catastrophe as a 10, how big is this problem? 3. A month from now, will you remember the issue?

Caring Relationships

People of all ages and circumstances need caring relationships, as the case of John D.

Rockefeller shows: Rockefeller entered the business world and drove himself so hard that by the age of 33 he had earned his first million dollars. Ten years later, he owned the world’s largest business, Standard Oil. By the age of 53, he was the world’s first billionaire. During the process, he developed alopecia, a condition in which his hair fell out, his digestion was so poor that all he could eat was crackers and milk, and he was plagued by insomnia. His doctors agreed he wouldn’t live another year. Then John D. Rockefeller changed. He began to think of and care about the welfare of others. He decided to use his wealth for the benefit of others. He founded hospitals and universities and a myriad of missions to help his fellow man. When Rockefeller began helping others, he helped himself as well. For the first time in years, he was able to eat and sleep normally. He felt renewed. He lived to see not only his 54th birthday but his 98th birthday, too, giving and caring for others.

Rx Consider: who do you love and how do they know it? Live by the maxim, always do the loving thing.

Action steps

After heredity, three of the most important influences in our lives are:

  1. The people we are around
  2. What we tell ourselves
  3. The books we read

The following are books and related videos that are particularly helpful in developing the characteristics of a hardy personality.

Related Books:

For commitment, read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

For control, read First Things First by Stephen Covey.

For attitude, read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

For perspective, read Is It Worth Dying For? by Robert Eliot.

For relationships, read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm.

Related Videos:

For commitment: J. K. Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.

For control: Steve Jobs: How to Live Before You Die.

For attitude: Martin Seligman: The New Era of Positive Psychology.

For perspective: Robert Sapolsky: Stress, Portrait of a Killer.

For love: Nick Vujicic:  No Arms, No Legs, No Worries.