A chain of people holding hands at a vigil

At a 2006 vigil for those who died in Hurricane Katrina, mourners hold hands.

MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES

The science of resilience: What are the ingredients that help people cope?

Resilience is on many people's minds these days. Hurricanes and fires regularly wallop communities. The risks of climate change loom large, and the horrors of war and the refugee crises it spawns show no signs of abating. Bitter political divisions have yielded to acrimony and gloom.

It's an unsettling time—made more so because we humans have nurtured many of these crises, yet feel unable to control them. But even though hardship cripples some, others rebound. What can science teach us about how we might gird for future challenges and adapt to them?

To find out, we followed the stories. They took us to New Orleans, Louisiana, where social scientists are tracking Hurricane Katrina survivors. They took us to the Middle East, where scientists are testing a program designed to foster resilience among traumatized children. They took us to Bangladesh, where residents are rethinking whether resilience means bending to nature's will or fighting it. And they took us deep into the natural world, as we invited scientists to consider what makes ecosystems on land and water resilient, and explored how organisms as diverse as tobacco plants and bacteria have evolved resilience strategies that offer lessons—or at least metaphors—we humans could embrace.

One psychologist coined the term ordinary magic to describe the mix of features that brews resilience. We learned that no clear-cut recipe exists. Investigating it carries pitfalls—in logistics, funding, and culture clashes. Despite the obstacles, scientists are parsing key ingredients of resilience. Some carry policy prescriptions; others require an uncomfortable rethinking of adaptations needed to survive. Perhaps most important, we found that this research cultivates something that's in short supply these days: It breeds hope.