How to Build Resilience During the Pandemic

“We’re in this moment where we have to help one another.”

Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook, the bestselling author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Adam Grant is a world-renowned organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, a curator for the Next Big Idea Club, and the bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg.

Sheryl and Adam recently sat down for a Facebook Live conversation about how Sheryl coped with the loss of her husband, how we can adapt to a world fighting coronavirus, and how joy gives us strength when we need it most.

This excerpt has been edited and condensed. To watch the full conversation, click the video below.

Sheryl: When my husband passed away suddenly, I was living my Option B. And now, in the middle of this virus, everyone is living in Option B—people are facing uncertainty, loss, loneliness, and economic challenges.

I once asked you how much resilience I had, and you told me that that was the wrong question. What exactly is resilience?

Adam: Resilience is the speed and strength of your response to adversity. It’s how quickly you recover, and how fully you bounce back. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we do have some influence over the way we think about and process our circumstances.

There are two P’s that I think are especially relevant to this crisis. The first is the trap of permanence—we don’t know when this crisis is going to end. It’s starting to feel indefinite, like it’s going to last forever. When we catch ourselves falling into that trap, we should say, “Wait a minute, we don’t know when it’s going to end, but we do know that it’s going to end. This will not go on indefinitely.” Reminding ourselves that there will be an end point makes it a little easier to cope with the difficulty of the present.

Then the other P is pervasiveness—it’s the sense that when one part of your life gets worse, all of a sudden, you feel like everything is worse. It’s like that song “Everything Is Awesome,” only everything is awful. Life has gotten much harder for many people, but there are parts of our lives that are not affected by this. Anybody who has their immediate family living with them is maybe feeling a little closer to them. Anybody who has their phone or internet working—those are parts of our lives that are still functioning okay. So I think recognizing that not every aspect of life has been ruined is a helpful step.

“We’ve responded to a physical distance by creating more emotional closeness with the people who really matter to us.”

Sheryl: When you’re really suffering, you think you’re supposed to look for happy thoughts. But actually allowing yourself to think about what could be worse helps make you grateful for what you still have. It’s one way of finding out that the loss is not pervasive.

I remember one day shortly after Dave died, you said to me, “It could be worse.” I just looked at you like, “Really? I walked into a gym and found my husband dead on the floor. Worse?” You said, “Yes. Dave could have had that cardiac arrhythmia while driving with your children.” In that moment, I was like, “Oh my God, I could have lost all three. My kids are alive. I’m fine.” So even in those really hard moments, we can say, “Wow, it could be worse.”

Two weeks ago, we lost my fiancé’s cousin. And it’s really hard for families now—there’s no funeral. All the things we do to come together and support one another are gone. But we had that moment where we looked at each other and said, “So far, everyone else in our family is healthy.”

And then there’s post-traumatic growth—can our lives be better for the hard things we go through? There really are ways in which my life is better for the lessons I learned from losing Dave. To be clear, I would have rather not lost Dave—but I can’t bring Dave back, just like we can’t make this virus go away right now. But we can still learn lessons from our experiences.

For me, one of them is about birthdays. Before Dave died, I didn’t really know anyone who had died very young, so I just assumed that I’d have plenty of birthdays, and I didn’t bother to celebrate them much. But now, I treasure every birthday. When I hit 48, which was the birthday Dave never had, I was like, “Oh my God, I made it.” I hit 50 this year, and before Dave died, I would have hit 50 and been like, “Oh my God, I’m 50! I’m gray, I’m old!” No—it’s a gift, and it’s a gift that not everyone gets.

So, the last time you went to a restaurant—how much did you appreciate it? What about the last time you hugged a friend? I don’t remember the last hug I gave a friend before this. But the next time any of us go to a restaurant or hug a friend, it’s going to be the most special experience. Then the question is, two years from now, can we hang onto that lesson of gratitude for that everyday human connection?

Adam, do you have more examples of post-traumatic growth you can share, or advice for how people can find it in these moments?

Adam: It’s interesting, my wife and I have been talking with our kids about this experience, and we’ve asked them to imagine the last time there was a pandemic, about a century ago. There was no internet. There was no Netflix. There were no food delivery systems. We didn’t have advanced healthcare. I think that’s one simple way of imagining how things could be worse—just recognizing that we are at the best time in human history for something like this to happen in terms of our ability to carry on with our lives, and also eventually to treat and hopefully prevent and cure this virus. I think that realization, that sense of gratitude, is one form of post-traumatic growth.

When I think about the others, there’s often a deeper relationship that comes out of facing trauma together. There’s evidence, for example, that soldiers who have gone to war together and faced losses in their platoons are, 40 years later, more likely to have strong connections. I think that a lot of us are feeling a version of that right now, where we’ve responded to a physical distance by creating more emotional closeness with the people who really matter to us.

I think the biggest thing—and Sheryl, I saw so much of this in you—is the sense of personal strength. This perspective that, “You know what? I got through that. I can get through almost anything.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, because I feel like a lot of people—even those of us who are lucky not to have lost someone close to us over the past month or so—we’re feeling this sense of grief from the loss of normalcy.

“We build resilience in ourselves, but also in one another.”

Sheryl: Well, it’s like we said—every single person is living in Option B. No one is living the way they want. We ourselves may be sick, or have relatives who are sick. People are worried about their elderly parents and people with preexisting conditions. Then there are the economic struggles people are facing—skyrocketing unemployment, more women getting laid off, black women being twice as likely as white men to have their hours cut, be laid off, or get furloughed. These are very serious challenges, and the question is, how are we going to get through them? One answer is that we’re not going to get through them alone—we’re going to get through them together. We build resilience in ourselves, but also in one another—that’s collective resilience.

Adam, can you talk about collective resilience? What is it, and how do we create it for one another?

Adam: If you were to think about resilience like a muscle, it’s not just an individual muscle. Our ability to bounce back or bounce forward is intricately interconnected with other people’s experiences and lives. So some people are lucky to have personality traits like optimism, which makes it easier for them to look on the bright side of bad situations. But if we’re not that lucky—or even if we are, and we’re just not feeling it that day—it’s the responses of the people around us that really shape our resilience.

So when I think about collective resilience, I think about the speed and strength of the community’s response, or a family’s response, to a crisis. I think about a family that gets together and says, “Okay, we are stuck with this situation. We don’t like it. We wish we could undo it, but we can’t. So let’s talk about the daily practices that are going to help us be strong together.”

“People who write down three moments of joy every day actually end up becoming happier.”

How have you been thinking about building collective resilience?

Sheryl: Well, we’re in this moment where we have to help one another. There’s an amazing Facebook story that has meant a lot to me—there’s a woman who has asthma and a newborn, but her husband is an ER doctor working directly with these coronavirus patients. She didn’t know what to do—that’s a pretty precarious situation.

So she went on Facebook and asked, “Does anyone have an RV we can borrow?” And a stranger lent her their RV. Now her husband is living in front of their house in the RV—he can still see her and the baby, but not expose them to risk. An entire group formed on Facebook to help RV owners lend their RVs to healthcare workers, in order to protect their families. That’s collective resilience. That is a moment of someone solving a problem for themselves, and also solving it for others.

When I lost Dave, you talked to me about finding moments of joy. There were days when I basically cried every minute I had, or had to put on a strong face for my kids. But you told me to notice my joy, and journal it. Can we talk about joy journals?

Adam: I actually remember the day it first came up—you came to visit, and you started talking about a moment where you had felt joy. It was immediately followed by horrible guilt, like, “How could you possibly be happy when your husband was gone?”

“Joy doesn’t just make us happy—it also gives us strength.”

I remember you saying that and thinking, “But isn’t that what Dave wanted for you? That was his biggest priority in life—for you and your kids to be happy. To take that away from him would be a horrible thing.”

There’s a lot of research showing that it’s not enough just to feel joy—we need to mark it. People who write down three moments of joy every day actually end up becoming happier, and I think part of the reason is that they then notice those moments throughout the day.

I have to say, I used to think that joy was a little frivolous. But you convinced me that joy doesn’t just make us happy—it also gives us strength. I’d love to hear more about how you experienced that, and also how you’re finding joy now.

Sheryl: Even in the depths of grieving or the depths of a crisis, you can actually still find joyful moments. Even if you’re upset all day, someone will make a joke, or a cup of coffee will taste good. They’re very fleeting, but if you force yourself to write down three moments of joy every night, not only do you get to write those down, but you’re also looking for them and noticing them all day. We owe people as much help as we can give, but we owe ourselves moments of joy so that we can get to that place and be helpful.