The Resilience Project by Hugh Van Cuylenburg

The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness (Ebury Press, Penguin Random House Australia) is an inspiring book about creating happiness and well-being by practising gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. These three attributes, combined with listening, showing your own imperfections and vulnerability and other behaviours, can turn lives around.

Hugh is an Australian who writes about his experiences learning and teaching these principles in an honest, easy-to-read way.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Hugh.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg, founder and author of The Resilience Project (photo from The Resilience Project website)

What is the Resilience Project and how is it uniquely Australian?

The Resilience Project is many things. It’s a schools’ program, a corporate program, an elite sport program, a podcast, an app, and now of course, it’s a book. In a nutshell, we are striving to teach people preventive, positive mental health strategies in an entertaining and emotionally engaging way. As for what makes it uniquely Australian….that is a great question, in fact it’s a question I haven’t been asked before. I think the very personality of our organisation is very Australian. We are self-deprecating, humble and don’t take ourselves too seriously. In fact, the presentations that have become so popular here in Australia didn’t work across in the US a few years back. I remember when presenting to a big college football team a footballer calling out from the crowd mid-presentation “come on man, believe in yourself.” I remember thinking, I do believe in myself mate, but we Australians don’t need to parade that around. I felt a huge sense of pride.

You have taught in schools. How is this similar or different from presenting to adults?

There are very few differences. I see a lot more nose picking in school sessions, but apart from that, the very act of engaging an audience doesn’t differ because of the age group. No matter what the age, people love stories. The attention span and focus might be slightly different, but provided you are engaging your audience the age doesn’t matter.

Which adults have been particularly thrilling or memorable to present to?

The audience that I get the biggest kick out of, is the ‘reluctant audience.’ Typically, they are men. Typically, their employer has booked it in for their work-place. Typically, they find a way before I start to let me know they don’t want to be there and have no interest in what I’m there to talk about. In fact they are furious they have to sit down and listen to some bloke ‘bang on’ about being happy. My favourite part of the presentation is about ten minutes in when I can see I have ‘got’ them. Sometimes they are fighting back tears, other times they are staring at the ground, embarrassed at how they had treated me before the session. It is hugely fulfilling winning over a crowd who don’t want to be won over.

You have worked with the NRL. Why are you so positive about NRL players when they are now so often vilified?

I have never met a better mannered group of young men. When I finish doing a talk at a school or a corporate group I am used to a handful of people coming over to thank me for speaking. When I finish a talk to NRL footballers they form an orderly queue, and all give me a hug or some cool high five repertoire I can’t keep up with. Not only that, but they all say hi and welcome me to the club when I first arrive. I should add, that I don’t expect a welcome and thank you hug from the people I go and speak to, but without fail, the NRL footballers are exceptionally warm, welcoming and polite.

Why do you value music, exercise and laughter so highly?

Great question with a simple answer. They have the power to shift our emotion to a positive so very quickly. We all know that feeling of being in the car, driving somewhere we maybe dreading and all of sudden a song comes on in the car that we love and everything changes for us. Or perhaps you’ve had a rotten day and the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. But you stick your runners on anyway and head out for jog- the neuroscience says it only takes 30 seconds until your emotion starts to shift to be more positive. Laugher, however has to be the most powerful, as the shift is instant. The very second you start laughing your emotion shifts to a more positive feeling.

You write about the importance of random acts of kindness. What random act of kindness have you done or received that is particularly memorable?

This is quite a topical question. I was stopped only this morning by a complete stranger, a young girl who wanted to tell me how much the book had resonated with her and how much of an impact it had on her. I couldn’t stop grinning all afternoon. As far as my own acts of kindness, I think the challenge is to continue to do little things every day that help others out. Right now, as silly as it sounds, I am thoroughly enjoying letting people into traffic. I actually have a quota of five people a day. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me when I get a big thank you wave and smile. The neuroscience says that I’m experiencing oxytocin, the hormone known as the love hormone. When you do something nice for someone, your brain rewards you with this wonderful hormone. It pays to be kind!

What is some advice that you give parents about screens and social media?

I feel strongly that smart devices are making it harder to be happy. They are creating this ‘compare and despair’ society. The world is now plagued by a perfectionist epidemic. This is social media’s fault. They have built addictive features into their apps and we were none the wiser. Regardless, there are things we can do to take back control of our digital dependency.

Here are my top four bits of advice for this:

-turn all notifications off. You should decide when you check your phone, not the other way around.

-rearrange your homes screen so all that you see is apps that are NOT addictive. I only have four apps on my home screen.

-remove facebook from your phone all together. They are the masters of sucking us into or devices.

-leave your phone at home when you don’t need it. You don’t have to take your phone everywhere you go.

Your writing style is very accessible and keeps us reading even when describing terrible situations. Is this how you speak and where can people hear you?

Thank you, that is very kind. I just tell stories. Whether it’s on stage or on the page, I tell stories. People love stories. They bond us, they move us and they amuse us. I try very hard to have the audience member feel as though we have just been catching up for a beer or a coffee, one on one. I find it works particularly well for an Australian audience. My national tour for 2020 is on our website.

After reading the book, how can readers find out more about The Resilience Project? has all the information about our programs, our app, our resources and the podcast.

Thanks very much for your responses, Hugh, and all the best with The Resilience Project. I have already incorporated some of its principles into my own life.

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