Perseverance Cultivates Purposefulness and Boosts Resilience

Goal-striving perseverance may fend off depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Posted May 04, 2019

People who refuse to give up on achieving specific goals and approach challenges with a positive outlook are at lower risk of clinical depression (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and panic disorder (PD), according to a recently published report of 3,294 adults who were studied for almost two decades starting in the mid-1990s. This paper, "Relation Between Cognitive and Behavioral Strategies and Future Change in Common Mental Health Problems Across 18 Years," was published online May 2 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology

 Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Data for this longitudinal cohort study was collected from the same participants three times over 18 years. The first data collection period was between 1995 to 1996; the second round occurred between 2004 to 2005, and the final surveys were taken between 2012 to 2013.

During each evaluation, study participants filled out scale-based questionnaires designed to rate their degree of goal persistence (e.g., "When I encounter problems, I don't give up until I solve them"), self-mastery (e.g., "I can do just about anything I set my mind to"), and positive reappraisal (e.g., "I can find something positive, even in the worst situations").

Notably, participants who showed more robust goal persistence and higher degrees of "looking on the bright side" from the time of their first assessment in the mid-1990s also experienced lower rates of depression, anxiety, and panic disorders across the 18-year span of the study, according to the authors.

Resolute "goal persistence" (Wrosch et al., 2000) along with using an explanatory style called "positive reframing" to find silver-linings in potentially dire situations (Lambert et al., 2009), appear to be a winning combination for keeping a wide range of mental health issues at bay.

"Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder," lead author Nur Hani Zainal of Pennsylvania State University said in a statement. "Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable, and manageable." 

"Depression, anxiety, and panic disorders are common mental health disorders that can be chronic and debilitating and put a person's physical health and livelihood at risk. Often, people with these disorders are stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse," co-author, Michelle Newman, who is a Professor of Psychology at Penn State, added. "We wanted to understand what specific coping strategies would be helpful in reducing rates of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks."

Surprisingly, in a counter-intuitive finding, the data analysis showed that self-mastery scores didn't appear to correlate directly with mental health outcomes across the 18-year period of this study. "This could have been because the participants, on average, did not show any changes in their use of self-mastery over time," Newman said. "It is possible that self-mastery is a relatively stable part of a person's character that does not easily change."

In the Discussion section of their paper, Zainal and Newman give more details about their hypothesis that goal-directed perseverance may be a type of "secret sauce" for mental health:

"Tolerating challenges toward goal attainment led to steeper decreases in disorder counts because it enhanced willingness to metaphorically 'roll with the punches.' In doing so, people were less likely to be gridlocked by future-focused worry or past-centered ruminative brooding that fed into pseudo-problem solving tendencies. Instead, tenacious goal pursuits can foster effective problem-solving approaches as people become more mindful of how their daily affairs, actions, and habits are instrumental in achieving their dreams." 

Below is the five-item "Persistence in Goal-Striving Scale" (Wrosch et al., 2000) used to measure goal persistence and perseverance on a four-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "a lot." How would you respond to these five prompts on a 1-4 scale? 

  1. When things don't go according to my plans, my motto is, "Where there's a will, there's a way." 
  2. When faced with a bad situation, I do what I can do to change it for the better. 
  3. Even when I feel I have too much to do, I find a way to get it all done. 
  4. When I encounter problems, I don't give up until I solve them. 
  5. I rarely give up on something I am doing, even when things get tough. 

Below is the four-item "Positive Reappraisal Scale" (Wrosch et al., 2000) used to assess positive reappraisal (i.e., positive reframing). These items are also rated on a four-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "a lot." How would you respond to these four prompts on a scale of 1-4? 

  1. I usually learn something meaningful from a difficult situation.
  2. When I am faced with a bad situation, it helps to find a different way of looking at things. 
  3. Even when everything seems to be going wrong, I can usually find a bright side to the situation.
  4. I can find something positive, even in the worst situations. 

"Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism," Zainal said. "Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs."

"Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in," Zainal concluded. "Boosting a patient's optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition despite obstacles can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose."

Has the Combination of Perseverance and Positive Reframing Helped You Sustain Better Mental Health Over the Years?

Although I didn't participate in this 18-year study, I can corroborate the power of goal-directed perseverance and positive reappraisal to reduce someone's risk of MDD, GAD, and PD across a lifespan. Thirty-six years of goal-striving perseverance and positive reframing in my day-to-day life gives credence to this 18-year study (Zainal & Newman, 2019) on strategies and future change in common mental health problems.

Back in the winter of 1983, when I was a junior in high school, I suffered a debilitating major depressive episode (MDE) marked by crippling anxiety and panic attacks. Luckily, I stumbled on the mental health benefits of goal-striving and perseverance via endurance running. (See, "Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make It Happen!" and "Serotonin Plays a Surprising Role in Fight-Flight-or-Freeze.") 

Since the beginning, perseverance has been a core principle of "The Athlete's Way" approach to life and sport. One of my earliest posts as a rookie blogger, "The Neuroscience of Perseverance," explores how the "reward molecule" dopamine taps into dopaminergic pathways (Wang et al., 2011) and fortifies the habit formation of goal-directed perseverance on a neurobiological level.

For that 2011 post, I interviewed Jean Wiecha, who was an Associate Professor of Exercise and Health Sciences at UMass Boston at the time, and asked her, "What is the biggest predictor of long-term success for students in your GoKids Boston program?" Wiecha responded with a one-word answer: "Perseverance."

When it comes to perseverance, Jean Wiecha "walks the walk" and is Exhibit A of maintaining "high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism." In 2012, she started studying portrait painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and is currently pursuing her lifelong dream and career goal of being a painter.

"Maine’s coast, with its cool light, rough beaches, working waterfronts, and earthy palette gives me year round inspiration. If I can hear seagulls, I’m happy," Wiecha says in her online bio. "In addition to being a painter I work in research and evaluation, helping nonprofits translate science into programs that benefit children and vulnerable populations. I think a great value of both art and science is that they each lead to transformation in their own ways."

Wiecha also believes that regular physical activity is one of the most effective ways to hardwire the habit of perseverance in all areas of your life. I agree. As a coach, I know that any time you set a goal of beginning and finishing a specific workout (e.g., jogging once around a reservoir or biking for 30 minutes at moderate intensity) you are reinforcing a mindset of perseverance, nourishing a sense of purposefulness, and boosting your resilience. This is a transferable mindset that can be applied to any life goal and will help you actualize your dreams.

My next post on this topic will also include easy ways you can use quotations and musical anthems from "perseverance role models" to hardwire your perseverant mindset by pounding their words and musical lyrics into your head before and during moderate-to-vigorous workouts.

For example, Muhammad Ali famously said, "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." He also said, "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."

As another example, back in 1972, Helen Reddy hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 with her perseverance anthem, "I Am Woman." This song is all about goal-striving persistence and positive reappraisal. Reddy sings, "You can bend but never break me. 'Cause it only serves to make me, more determined to achieve my final goal. And I come back even stronger, not a novice any longer. 'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul."

In a follow-up post, I'm going to share some autobiographical stories and anecdotal evidence of how the combination of Five P's: Physical activity, Perseverance, Passion, Purposefulness, and Positive reframing have helped keep my predisposition for clinical depression at bay for over 36 years.

Updated on May 12: Here's the follow-up post, "Grit Mindset: 12 John Wayne Quotes vs. a Dozen Madonna Songs." 

References

Nur Hani Zainal and Michelle G. Newman. "Relation Between Cognitive and Behavioral Strategies and Future Change in Common Mental Health Problems Across 18 years." Journal of Abnormal Psychology (First published online: May 2, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/abn0000428

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