Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson, Tullamore-based clinical psychologists
MIDWAY through the second lockdown of 2020 we are being called upon again by health, political and legal authorities alike, to dig deep and persevere in order to flatten the second wave curve.
This digging deep refers to many aspects of our lives; financial, occupational, social, emotional.
In this column we try to illustrate how aspects of positive psychology can be adopted and utilised by all of us to better manage stress and distress and mental health in general.
Martin Seligman, a psychologist who is widely credited as the father of positive psychology, along with Chris Peterson and a team of over 40 researchers conducted a large-scale study to examine character.
On the basis of this they identified over 20 character strengths which have persisted throughout time, in all cultures and are present to a degree in every individual (these include optimism, bravery, creativity, perseverance...). In turn, clinical psychologists working directly with clients, encourage them to build on their character strengths when they are being challenged.
A few weeks back we examined positive thinking, a character strength and an essential aspect of positive psychology. Today we are going to examine perseverance, another one of these strengths of character which help us to endure.
The nature of perseverance
Perseverance is really about keeping going, putting one foot in front of the other, despite the obstacles in our way.
Back in March 2020 most of us felt that this global pandemic would be short-term. However, this virus is proving to be more persistent than that and we are finding that as we tire and lose motivation we do need to dig deep to find a way to keep going, to persevere.
Dr Anna Katharina Schaffner, an academic affiliated to the University of Kent describes perseverance as being related to our ability to delay gratification, to self-regulate and to practise self-control.
In addition, perseverance means that we prioritise long-term goals over short-term rewards. Angela Duckworth, an author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former school teacher, has conducted extensive research with a very varied sample group such as business executives, school children and military personnel, into what she calls “grit” and how we can become “grittier”.
According to Duckworth, perseverance is an element of grit. In fact perseverance added to passion equals grit. Passion refers to a strong interest in and a motivation towards pursuit of goals.
What is really important is that grit can be learnt. As Schaffner puts it “we can all practise becoming grittier and work on our ability to persevere”.
Perseverance and grit
There are a number of take-away points from Duckworth’s extensive research that may be helpful to us all both at this time in the midst of the challenges of Covid-19 but also more generally in our lives, our work, our goals.
First, Duckworth advises us that we have to find something in our lives that we find truly interesting and valuable. This requires being open and curious, trying new things, developing them and sticking with them.
Second, we must view frustrations as a somewhat necessary evil, inevitable really and not get upset by them to the point of giving up. Duckworth feels that by reframing mistakes and learning experiences we can actually stick with things better, be “grittier”. We need to practise in order to make progress.
Third, our work, what we do, must have meaning for us; the more purpose we feel the more satisfied we will be. Research shows that there is a link between satisfaction and performance.
The fourth point relates to self-belief and hope and having a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset.
So not succeeding at something is viewed more as an opportunity for change in approach rather than giving up.
Duckworth has also found that who you surround yourself with can also help determine your level of perseverance and grit.
If our teachers, parents, friends and partners are good role models in terms of grit, we can turn to them and learn from them when we also are faced with adversity.
Perseverance is actually even more important than innate talent and/or IQ. In other words, we can be clever and talented but we also need to persevere in the face of challenge and practise continued effort, to learn from our mistakes and get back up again in order to actually achieve.
Linking self-compassion and perseverance
In this column we regularly talk about self-compassion and how it is so important for building mental fitness. In addition, self-compassion builds perseverance towards achieving our goals and keeping us motivated.
Chris Germer and Kristen Neff are two American psychologists who have conducted extensive work in the area of self-compassion. They tell us that self-compassionate people are better able to cope with tough situations like divorce, trauma and chronic pain. This is because self-compassion is a reliable source of inner strength that confers courage and enhances resilience in the face of difficulties.
In addition, while self-compassionate people have high standards, they do not beat themselves up when they don’t succeed. In turn this means they are less likely to fear failure and are more likely to try again and to persevere if they fail. Research has also shown that self-compassionate people engage in healthier behaviours and better self-care, such as healthy eating, exercise and less drinking. Looking after our self-care can improve our ability to persist and persevere when faced with challenge.
So in the weeks ahead as 2020 draws to a close and everyone prepares for what the new year will bring, we need to prioritise our self-care and practise self-compassion more than ever.