Muscling Through the Tough Times

The psychological tools of resilience

Posted Jul 07, 2019

Skeeze / Pixabay
Source: Skeeze / Pixabay

Here’s a thing about getting older: You see more bad stuff. It’s true. The older you get, the more gut-wrenching, painful, unfair, awful things will make it into your world. Here are some examples:

  • You might lose a friend to cancer.
  • You might lose a family member to cancer.
  • You might lose a friend to a freak accident.
  • You might even lose a child.
  • You might run into relationship problems that feel shocking and insurmountable.
  • You might receive a medical diagnosis that seems nothing short of shattering.
  • You might receive a mental health diagnosis that seems nothing short of shattering.
  • And more...

The older you get, the more you realize that life is hard and that you’re going to have to muscle through a bunch of absolutely awful, terrible, unspeakable experiences. And that is if you are lucky enough to be here at all.

I know that this sounds a little less positive than my usual “hey, isn’t life great!?” self. I make no apologies for this. My blog, Darwin’s Subterranean World, is about the human experience conceptualized as broadly as possible. Bad stuff is part of life and people need to be prepared to deal with this fact. 

Predictors of Resilience

In our upcoming book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology (Geher & Wedberg, 2020), Nicole Wedberg and I dedicate an entire chapter to the exploration of resilience from an evolutionary perspective. 

Resilience is that psychological attribute that allows us to maintain our sense of self in spite of stressors and setbacks.

Resilience is that special something that allows you to stand up after a failure, smile, and try again.

Resilience is that suite of psychological traits that allows you to smile at the rain.

Resilience is that set of traits that allows you to move forward when life gets hard.

In a 2013 study on the correlates of resilience in a sample of adolescents and adults in the U.S.,  Gomez, Vincent, and Toussant (2013) explored the factors that are most associated with resilient responding in the face of negative life outcomes. In short, they asked this question: What factors lead to resilient responding to life’s stressors?

Here are the big three factors that their analyses uncovered:

1. Less Negative Affect

Negative affect, or the tendency to experience various unpleasant and negatively valenced emotional states, is a foundational psychological attribute—one that has ubiquitous, far-reaching effects on behavior.

Negative affect takes many forms, including sadness, anxiety, and anger. In Gomez et al.’s (2013) study, the specific form of negative affect that was experienced mattered less than did the presence of negative affect at all. Negative emotional states, regardless of their particular content, are associated with less resilience and with worse functioning in the face of failure and other negative life events.

Importantly, this all is not to say that you shouldn't feel negative emotions when bad stuff happens. Of course, you have every right to feel sad when something sad happens or angry when something infuriating happens. This all is just to say that it won't be those negative emotions that ultimately bring you forward and to a better place.

2. More Positive Affect

Positive affect, or the tendency to experience various pleasant and positively valenced emotional states, is also a foundational attribute. And it also has ubiquitous effects on our behavior and on our psychological worlds. 

As is the case with negative affect, positive affect is an umbrella term that includes several different forms of emotional states. Joy, relief, love, satisfaction, appreciation. These are all forms of positive affect. And they all have the capacity to play a role in healing.

3. Gratitude

When my good friend and bandmate, Peter Kaufman, found himself in the final days of a valiant battle against a monstrous and unfair form of lung cancer, do you know what he did? He wrote thank-you cards to as many close friends and family members as he could. Peter loved cycling, and he had this big batch of bicycle-themed postcards that he used for this task. I was one of the fortunate people to have received such a card. He thanked me for being a good friend. A good bandmate. A good community member. And even a good husband and father.

Typing this now brings tears to my eyes. Peter’s taking the time to express gratitude to me for who I was in his world meant everything to me. But I think it also meant a lot to him. Peter was a naturally gracious person, and he understood, as his days were numbered, that expressing gratitude and love for others is a key to muscling through the tough stuff in life. 

And this is fully consistent with the findings that Gomez et al. (2013) obtained. The tendency to experience gratitude toward others is a strong predictor of resilient responding in the face of adversity. 

Bottom Line

Look, life is hard. If you don’t know that yet, I can pretty much promise that you will know this soon enough. People like me, experienced folks who, for some reason or another, feel an obligation to help support the next generation of leaders, are, to my mind, charged with giving younger folks the information and skills needed to succeed across a broad range of scenarios and contexts.

As such, please take this post as some advice on how to deal with life when the storm clouds hit. 

It won’t be clear exactly how or when, but I promise you this: The storm clouds will hit. And you have to be ready.

References

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Gomez, G., Vincent, V., & Toussant, L. L. (2013). Correlates of Resilience in Adolescents and Adults. International Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and Mental Health, 1, 18-24.