How Hardy Are You? The Psychology of Grace Under Pressure

Hardiness may be viewed as manifesting existential courage.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

Life demands constant adaptation. Stress is what we experience when we respond to adaptation demands. Therefore, life is stressful. The only way to be truly stress-free is to be dead, because the dead don't respond to demands—adaptation or otherwise.

Life, in other words, is hard. Yet some people appear better suited for the hardship. Psychologists have been trying for years to decipher what makes some people resilient, i.e., able to manage stress, bounce back from failure, endure hardship, and thrive post-trauma.

Of course, individual success, in coping as with everything else, is never about individual qualities alone. In studying, assessing and predicting resilience, researchers must also account for social factors (family, peers), and the community and cultural setting. Moreover, the factors that affect resilience may differ by both person and problem variables. To wit: an infant's resilience may be quite different than that of an elderly person, and the resilience skills for managing the stress of combat may differ from those required for parenting a chronically ill child.

Research, in other words, is hard. Still, we know something about those who do well under conditions of adversity. A sense of belonging, good social support, and self-efficacy predict better resilience. Intelligence helps, as does secure attachment and—wouldn’t you guess (Freud would have)—a loving mother. As the great psychologist George Vaillant put it: "Happiness is love. Full stop," 

bottled_void/Flickr
Source: bottled_void/Flickr

Research evidence has also been accumulating for the role of stress inoculation in producing and improving resilience. According to this hypothesis, exposure to moderate, manageable levels of stress in childhood may buffer against the negative effects of stress down the road. 

Still, personality appears to loom large in how we manage stress and setbacks. In some studies, personality factors account for roughly 40 percent of the differences in resilience. Resilience is associated with a personality trait pattern that is “mature, responsible, optimistic, persevering, and cooperative.”

More specifically, highly resilient people tend to be low on neuroticism (the tendency toward emotional instability and negative emotions) and high on extraversion (the tendency to be outgoing, gregarious, sociable, and expressive) and conscientiousness (the quality of wishing to do one's work or duty well and thoroughly).

One personality type found to predict stress resilience is the "hardy personality." Psychological hardiness, while related to other personality traits, appears to contribute uniquely to resilience, and to the prediction of important health and performance outcomes. Hardiness was first described in the 1970s by University of Chicago researcher Suzanne Kobasa. In formulating the concept, Kobasa was inspired by existentialism, a branch of philosophy (and psychology) that puts the human struggle for meaning and purpose at the center of its analysis. The existential perspective contends that life is ever-changing and involves a search for meaning that requires us to constantly choose whether to keep or repeat a familiar path or take a new, unfamiliar one. Choosing a new path creates opportunities for growth and is necessary for adaptation, but it also provokes anxiety, and thus requires courage. Hardiness may be viewed as manifesting existential courage.

Hardiness involves three components: Commitment (a knowledge of one’s value, purpose, and goals; engagement rather than alienation), Control (perceiving that one can influence the course of events; empowerment rather than powerlessness), and Challenge (framing events as challenges and opportunities for growth rather than as threats and calamities). In other words, psychological hardiness constitutes the ability to assess stressors accurately, face them intentionally, and act on them with courage and purpose. It is “a pattern of attitudes and actions that helps in transforming stressors from potential disasters into growth opportunities.” 

The role of psychological hardiness in buffering against the ill effects of stress has been demonstrated repeatedly in the research literature, yet questions remain. For one, the specific mechanisms by which psychological hardiness affects health outcomes are not yet fully understood. One way hardiness mitigates the effects of stress is through facilitating active coping and problem-solving and reducing ineffective avoidance coping. Hardiness also appears to confer more adaptive thinking habits. Hardy individuals appear to have a more positive cognitive explanatory style, a tendency to evaluate their situations, themselves, and their coping resources more positively.

Research has suggested that hardiness may also operate via biological pathways. For example, Paul Bartone of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and colleagues examined hardiness in relation to several indicators of cardiovascular health, including body mass index (BMI) and blood cholesterol markers in a sample of middle-aged adults. Results showed that, after controlling for the influence of age and sex, high hardiness was related to higher HDL (good cholesterol) and less body fat (BMI), suggesting that “psychological hardiness confers resilience in part through an influence on cholesterol production and metabolism.”

Hardiness was originally described as a stable personality trait. Yet research has expanded to look at whether hardiness can change over time, or be improved through training. All else being equal, adult hardiness may be rather stable. For example, Norwegian researcher Sigurd Hystad and colleagues in a longitudinal study with military academy cadets found no statistically significant effect of time on hardiness scores.

However, hardiness may indeed improve through training. For example, a program developed by one of the pioneers in the field of hardiness studies, Salvatore Maddi of the University of California Irvine, has been shown to increase self-reported hardiness as well as outcomes such as job satisfaction and student GPA while decreasing strain and illness severity.

How hardy are you? To answer, you may take this test. Generally, higher scores mean increased hardiness. A total score between 1 and 10 is in the average hardiness range. A total score above 10 means you are hardy. A score below zero means that you are vulnerable to the effects of stress. (Or, if you have more time and some change, you may try here.)

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