Home All A Day at O’Hare Airport: A Resilience Case Study

A Day at O’Hare Airport: A Resilience Case Study

written by Kirsten Cronlund 16 December 2008

Kirsten Cronlund, MAPP 2008, is committed to helping others navigate the rough waters of divorce with resiliency, drawing upon personal experience and the science of positive psychology. She is now serving as the director of Bryn Athyn Church School. Full bio.

Kirsten's articles are here.

As I write this article, I am sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. This morning, I missed my flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, and then I was passed over for the next flight, for which I was listed as standby. Since resilience is the common theme in all of my work, from academic tutoring to divorce coaching to writing, I have decided to treat this situation as a case study for dealing with adversity – to see just what tools and skills work and which ones don’tairplane1.jpg.

The day started well. My best friend dropped me off at the airport this morning. We noted how busy things seemed, but that was no surprise – it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I guess I should have allowed myself more time this morning.” But, oh well, who knew what would happen? I tend to approach the world optimistically and things tend to work out for me.

The ticketing line moved quickly, so my optimism seemed well-founded. But when I reached the bag check, I learned it was too late to check in for my scheduled flight. Glitch #1. Bummer. I felt a momentary sense of dread, but pushed it aside. The computer screen asked me if I would like to sign up as standby for the next available flight. Well, what else was I going to do? I considered possible ramifications, and decided to go for it. I still had plenty of time to get home, my kids were safe with their father, and nothing pressing was scheduled for the day. So I found my new gate, and settled into the short delay with a hot cup of coffee and a good book.

 From Snug and Smug to Stuck … and Obsessive

delayed-passengers.jpg I was feeling pretty smug. Since I was the first to arrive at the new gate, my name was at the top of the standby list. In my mind, a seat on this flight was practically guaranteed. But, as boarding time approached my name was getting bumped further and further down the list. The screen informed me that the order was also determined by frequent flyer status and flight class, as well as “flight irregularities.” Not being a Gold Class member, therefore, and as a coach passenger, I intellectually understood why I was getting bumped. My brain was telling me one thing – “This makes sense. I’m in no hurry. I will eventually get home” – but my increasingly jittery body belied my true inner experience.

I began obsessively watching the screen to see how far down my name was dropping. Then I saw the running tally of how many seats were still available on the flight. Uh, oh. Glitch #2. My name was now seventh, and there were only five seats available.

“Well,” I thought, “maybe people won’t show up for the flight, and I’ll still get on.” (Cognitive skills in action).

Then my mental gymnastics became really entertaining. I couldn’t take my eyes off that screen. Every time my name dropped down the list, I felt dread, which I then challenged with optimistic thoughts. Circumstances could change for the better, and I really didn’t need to be home for any particular reason. “Oh, yeah,” I thought, “it’s not that big a deal.”

But the screen would change for the worse and I would shift back into anxiety. I was making myself crazy. When I learned I would definitely not get on the flight, I realized the cognitive approach alone wasn’t working for me, and began to consider other strategies.

So now, here I am, facing a three hour wait for the next scheduled flight, which I may or may not get on. What to do? Well, I’ve decided to write this article. It feels good to have something constructive to do. And I will distract myself by observing how the other delayed passengers are responding to the situation.

Expanding the Tool-Box


Upon reflection, these are the key points of today’s lesson:

1. Before moving forward with resilient thinking, I need to accept my fate and acknowledge responsibility. (“I screwed up by not leaving enough time to catch my flight this morning.”) Sugar-coating this first misstep does not allow me to interpret my situation with authenticity and realism. This doesn’t mean berating myself, just acknowledging and sitting with the mistake.

2. Next, I need to calm myself. Certain breathing techniques really work well for me. I call it my “pathetic meditation,” not because the technique is pathetic – in fact, it has really powerful calming effects. But I am no guru, and don’t intend to achieve nirvana or experience transcendence. I just want to move through this moment as successfully as possible so I simply focus on my breathing. That’s all.

3. Only after these first two steps can I successfully engage cognitive skills, such as reminding myself that I am in no danger and my kids are taken care of. Even the worst case scenario is not so bad – I can call my friend to pick me up for another night at her house in Chicago. Things could be a lot worse.

4. Distraction is a very useful tool. Writing this article, looking at the people around me, making phone calls to friends and family (and laughing heartily with them at my fate) works pretty well to keep my anxiety levels down.

This has been a very interesting day, full of learning about resilience and mindfulness. I’m grateful for the nearby Starbucks, and I’ve enjoyed writing this article. And, eventually, I’ll be sleeping in my own bed at home…

To learn more about resilience skills and mindfulness, read the research below.


Images: airplane, delayed travelers, woman drinking coffee


Tkach, C. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How do people pursue happiness?: relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 183-225.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J, & Finkel, S. M. (in press). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Frewen, P. A., Evans, E. M., Marah, N., Dozois, D. J. A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: Mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.

Kumar, S., Feldman, G., & Hayes, A. (2009). Changes in mindfulness and emotion regulation in an exposure-based cognitive therapy for depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 734-744.

Kohls, N., Sauer, S., & Walach, H. (2008). Facets of mindfulness – Results of an online study investigating the Freiburg mindfulness inventory. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 224-230.

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Marcial Losada 16 December 2008 - 12:31 am

I have been in that situation many times, Kirsten. And with all my meta learning knowledge, it hasn´t been easy. This is what I do: Keep the positive up by three over the negative. Do inquiry and then affirm and fight (balance inquiry-advocacy). Put yourself in the shoes of the other, but also check your feelings and needs (balance other-self). Try to connect with fellow passengers and with the people at the counter (connectivity is the all powerful control parameter). So does it work? Honestly, it makes it better, but I do have a bad time. I wish I would have thought of writing an article. Congratulations!

Dave Shearon 16 December 2008 - 6:45 am

Yea, Kirsten! Resilience (and most other positive psychology constructs) seem both easy and superficial until one tries them out for real in a personal situation that matters. The harder and more personal the situation, the harder the application and the more beneficial the results. It’s a matter of choice and action as a way to learn and grow. Thanks for the example!

Scott Asalone 16 December 2008 - 9:45 am

This was a great article because it was Positive Psychology in action. Too often the reaction of others to PP is denial that it works in the real world. Your example of real-time resilience is concisely, and cogently illucidated within the context of your story. However, having been in that same situation numerous times because of my travels, I wondered if a man would have approached it differently. In the book Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock offers studies that women are socialized not to rock the boat. I would not have accepted the initial computer message that I was too late to check in. I would have asked to speak to a manager. However even having done that I probably would have been also sitting in the airport with you. Next time I’ll draw on my resilience skills. Thanks for a great article.

waynej 16 December 2008 - 1:50 pm

Kirsten, the first two steps sound like mindfulness to me. Is mindfulness a foundation skill of PP? You seem to be implying this?

Kirsten Cronlund 17 December 2008 - 6:53 am


Thanks for your thoughts on this. Yes, I can see how what you’re saying are your own meta learning in action. I especially appreciate the part about connecting with others around you. I didn’t do that this time, but at other times in my life when I have remembered to reach out to others then my own concerns and worries have dissipated. The reminder is good.

Best wishes,

Kirsten Cronlund 17 December 2008 - 6:56 am

Dave and Scott,

I’m glad that my living example of practicing resilience felt genuine to you. I agree that it’s often easy to talk about the theory of positive applications, and not so easy to apply them. Do you have your own examples of how you have applied resilience?


Kirsten Cronlund 17 December 2008 - 7:02 am


I think mindfulness is definitely a foundational skill for much of PP. In a way it opens the doorway for so many other skills. In fact, some of the research articles I listed for my article point to the fact that trying to push away negative thoughts or control them is much less beneficial than simply allowing them without judgment. Also, the practice of mindfulness increases a person’s cognitive abilities so that CBT skills are easier and more successful.

Best wishes,

Dave Shearon 17 December 2008 - 7:09 am

Examples, Kirsten? You want examples? Have you ever come to the right guy! When I first took the explanatory style questionnaire, years before MAPP, I scored in the “pessimistic” range. Marty suggests that may be because I am a lawyer, although to date we have no longitudinal data establishing that law school moves explanatory styles in a pessimistic direction, or even that having such a style works for attorneys.

In any event, as Susan Segerstrom talks about in Breaking Murphy’s Law, I have learned to act and, in general, to think more like an optimist. But often it is the mindful type of real-time optimism Karen Reivich teachers: I catch the negative thoughts, challenge them, and produce more realistic ones on-the-fly the instant they happen.

Just last week, my associate director and I were both working, but were both out of the office. I got an email from her asking me to call her. My immediate thought was, “What have I screwed up now?” I realized what I was doing, thought that it was more likely she just wanted to check something with me, and picked up the phone and called her. Positive, optimistic action that facilitated productivity, as opposed to the more-likely response had I not been aware of my thinking — putting it off, i.e., the lawyerly trait of procrastination!

waynej 17 December 2008 - 1:19 pm

Kirsten, If mindfulness is a foundation skill, then is it taught as part of the MAPP program?

waynej 17 December 2008 - 1:24 pm

Dave, I guess I’m lucky – I come out as very optimistic. I have also read some research that there is another layer to optimism that seligman doesn’t touch on. Optimists tend to be very solution oriented and if they can’t find a soloution they tend to move on very quickly and take control of what they can. This aligns very closely with the way I think.


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