During the second-year of my Master’s degree studies, I attended a conference where I first heard of, and became fascinated with, the concept of psychological resilience, defined as one’s ability to ‘bounce back’ or successfully adapt to dire circumstances without suffering significant negative consequences. The concept has been investigated by researchers in the field of positive psychology, known for its focus on what is right (instead of clinical psychology’s focus on what is wrong) with people. The emphasis is on our assets – strengths, talents, and virtues – rather than our deficits. As I was listening the conference presenter, I found myself thinking, “What is it about those individuals who no matter what adversity they had to face – whether it is grave health issues, loss of a loved one, or post-war trauma — are able to not only withstand but also adapt to the impact of their unfortunate situation and continue on, seemingly without any sign of psychological or emotional struggle? Is it some kind of a biologically based quality that we are born with, and so that you either have it or not? Or is it an acquired way of thinking and acting that we can actually be modeled and taught as an adaptive coping strategy?”
To explore these questions in depth, I decided to write a research proposal (which later became my Master’s thesis) to investigate protective factors — individuals’ internal and environmental characteristics, such as one’s temperament, personality, coping mechanisms, the degree of emotional support, and the quality of interpersonal relationships – that are associated with psychological resilience. Upon reviewing relevant past research in various fields, including developmental, positive, and social psychology, I hypothesized that the key protective factor underlying people’s ability to ‘bounce back’ may be their perceived self-efficacy. Initially proposed by Albert Bandura (1997, 2000, 2008), a Stanford University psychologist and the originator of Social Cognitive theory, self-efficacy is defined as one’s subjective sense of self-worth, confidence, and effectiveness. In other words, it is individuals’ belief in their mastery to control and ultimately change not only their thoughts and behaviors, but also their environment, and, therefore, be able to thrive, no matter how bad things get! According to research, individuals with high level of self-efficacy are more likely to be (1) more persistent on a task, however challenging it may be; (2) more academically and/or professionally successful; and (3) able to lead healthier lives, overall. The question, then, is how exactly one can develop and maintain high level of self-efficacy? Based on positive and social psychology research, the following are the top three (3) ways that can help us thrive under any circumstances:
- Intentional activities: One of the major factors leading to one’s sense of mastery and subsequent happiness are happiness-relevant intentional activities. The key word is intentional, which suggests that these are the practices that people actively choose and put some effort to enact. This notion goes together with the concept of self-regulation, proposed by a social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and defined as people’s ability to exercise their willpower to choose and alter their responses – thoughts, emotions, desires, impulses, and level of performance – in a way that enables to adjust effectively to any social situations or demands. Researchers identify different types of intentional activities: behavioral (i.e., positive lifestyle choices such as physical exercise and seeking social support); cognitive (i.e., finding and focusing on “silver lining” or positive side in any situation); and volitional (i.e., dedication to some meaningful cause or goal).
- Helpfulness: Numerous social psychology research studies find that engaging in any type of prosocial behavior, such as performing conscious acts of kindness, is linked with all aspects of human flourishing. By devoting our time helping those in less than fortunate circumstances, for examples, by volunteering at a local hospital or animal shelter, allows us to focus beyond our own needs and problems and with such an expanded perception, find a sense of purpose and meaning in our life. Moreover, research indicates that helpfulness-generated joy and positive emotions lead to creativity and cognitive flexibility, necessary for good decision-making and subsequent healthy body and mind.
- Gratitude: According to research, reflecting on and appreciating positive aspects in our lives, however small it may be, is found to be strongly associated with a high-level of happiness and perceived sense of mastery. Researchers recommend keeping a gratitude journal to express thanks and appreciation for being healthy, having good friends, holding an interesting job, or just being able to smell the flowers and see beautiful natural surroundings. Another way to express gratitude is to reach out to your friends and family as often as possible to express how much you love and appreciate them. Expressing gratitude daily will make your mind and body more sensitive to the pleasurable everyday moments!
Actively engaging in these evidence-based ways of thinking and behaving on a regular basis can help you to improve your (1) emotional and physical health, (2) performance at school and/or work, (3) quality of daily life activities and relationships; and (4) sense of self-respect and self-trust. Start today to experience a more balanced and thriving lifestyle!
Dr. Irina Fredericks is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with background in experimental, clinical, and developmental psychology. Dr. Fredericks has been providing psychological assessment and counseling services for the past 14 years, helping individuals of all ages and diverse cultural backgrounds build knowledge and confidence necessary to develop and practice the sense of mastery and positive thinking, so that they can conquer and deal effectively with any difficult situation. Click HERE to get more information and/or schedule an initial consultation.