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Why resilience is the key to solving 21st century problems

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PopTech, which holds a conference each fall in Camden, Maine, this year added an event in Iceland as well – for an important reason.

Iceland is "a fascinating laboratory for economic, social, and political resilience of many different stripes," Zolli said in a recent telephone interview. Its banks melted down in the financial crisis. But the country has taken decisive steps to bounce back, including writing a new constitution in just a few months time.

One happy conclusion of the book is that most people are resilient – often more resilient than they think. But can those who, for whatever reason, don't seem to possess that quality be helped? What makes individuals resilient? Ways to increase resiliency are becoming better understood, with two factors emerging, he says.

"If you believe that the world is a meaningful place, and you have a meaningful place within it; if you believe that you have agency within the world, that your actions have meaning ... that successes and failures are put in your life to teach you things, and that they're not just random acts of chance, then you have a much higher degree of resilience in the face of trauma," he says.

These mental attitudes are associated with religious beliefs. "People who have a spiritual or religious worldview are, on average, more resilient than people who aren't," he says. That's not the same as saying a particular religious belief – or any religious beliefs – are true. But "whether religion is true or not, it's actually good for you," he says.

The kind of "mindfulness" meditation associated with Buddhist monks has also proved useful in reducing stress. It can be used with combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Today US troops are more likely to kill themselves after returning home than to have been killed by the enemy, Zolli says. "That's a byproduct of the fact that war has become less fatal but no less stressful." In teaching some form of "mindfulness" meditation to veterans "we're talking about not only saving dollars but saving lives."

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