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This afternoon I had a conversation with a professional mental health care worker. He has more than a decade of working with broken people in transition homes, with the goal of bringing them back to a functioning condition. A lot of those desperately ill people had lost hope of any recovery and the problem was to help them regain hope in life and a paying job. My thought was that a single word represented the ability these hopeless people needed, more than anything, to cultivate to make their lives possible, and that word is resilience.

Resilience is usually thought of as being able to reform back into a previous state. An automobile tire has resilience because it has the ability to bounce back to a previous steady state quickly. But what if we are talking about human resilience and the previous condition wasn’t very workable? Like a flat tire, that can reform into a shape that looks okay, but will fail instantly when a load is put on it. What if the broken people had no good previous condition to bounce back to, and had little or no experience of ever living a meaningful and well-functioning life? Then bouncing back would simply be returning to a condition which brought about practical life failure and the emotional failure of hopelessness. Isn’t part of their disrepair the knowledge that they don’t know how to live, and therefore when helping to provide a better future, we also must provide them with the tools of resilience?

At Stanford University in California, where many of the most successful people in the world are being schooled, there is a culture of accepting failure. The people there are expected to strive to surpass the bounds of known possibilities, and that means to fail often and spectacularly. But along with that culture of accepting failure is a parallel one of rebounding and trying again with another possible but very difficult to achieve activity. I have been wondering if the failures of society might be helped by the techniques being used by those amazingly successful ones, like the founders of Google and many other companies creators coming from Stanford.

Might it be possible to create some games which are simple to play, but with some parts of them that are impossible, or at least almost impossible? Playing the game, which could have very short cycle times, would result in frequent failures but also frequent successes. Playing it would give some kudos points, but failing would only subtract a few points; thus there would be both a reward for success and a very mild punishment for failure. The goal for a depressed person would be to learn to tolerate failure and yet begin to play again. Perhaps this is why the current game Angry Birds is so popular.

When I am working and things get a little too hectic, it resets my emotions to play a couple of games of computer Solitaire. It takes only a couple of minutes and after that I feel refreshed. Is there a possibility that various people with more severe problems than mine could find games that would help to restore their emotional state to something better than despair? Some of these games might be transitioned into productive activities. For example there are old books that are untranslatable by present computer text-reading programs; some of these corrupted texts’ pieces have been used as Captchas for human decoding. But might these types of things be just the kind of activity that would challenge some depressed people to work through problems? It would give them meaningful tasks and help them restore their self-confidence. Of course every person is a unique case, but if some could be helped that might show the way to helping even more.

Human resilience can be learned by easy challenges and repeated successes.