When you encounter a situation that challenges your mental ability to cope it is desirable to not only absorb and recover from the ‘hit’ but to learn from what happened and become psychologically stronger from having had the experience.
Resilience or hardiness
In engineering terms, resilience refers to the ability of a material to recover its shape whereas for people it’s about ‘bouncing back’ and recovering from life’s hits – which may be only a step or two away from the ‘Hit me again, I can take it!’ approach of learned helplessness. In its own right, resilience can be quite a helpful strength but, is it enough to simply return to the status-quo of your pre-stressful condition?
Hardiness enables you to place stressful situations into more positive contexts and expands your ability to cope. It also underpins a considered and evolving personal leadership style, one based on how you see yourself and how you interact with the world. With hardiness, you embrace change as being normal and beneficial to your growth and take advantage of developmental opportunities that would otherwise be lost if everything remained the same.
Hardiness is active
Hardiness entails acting on the belief that you create what you experience and positively affect what is going on around you. Notice that word ‘experience’, it can easily slip by unnoticed mainly because of the assumption that what you experience is ‘how it is’, ‘life’, something that happens to you, or the result of forces beyond your control rather than the product of your reaction to events.
Evolving how we operate
An ability to absorb life’s blows is one aspect of hardiness but its essence lies in evolving the way you operate. However, when it comes to changing ingrained behaviour, the big challenge is not the acquisition of skills or knowledge, both of which are relatively easy to acquire, but the modification of your beliefs, in short, how your unconscious mind operates.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt refers to the unconscious mind as ‘the elephant’. He uses the elephant metaphor because it captures the notion of the futility of trying to forcibly make an elephant do something new at a particular moment giving rise to the old joke, ‘Where does an elephant sleep?’, ‘Anywhere it likes!’
If you want an elephant to sleep in a particular place you first need to train it.
Haidt proposes that there are three ways to change the elephant’s behaviour; meditation, distraction and Prozac. He was not kidding about Prozac, but notice that he did not include an option to rationally or consciously ‘think’ yourself into new ways of operating. Going around thinking positive thoughts such as ‘I love spiders’ often does not work because the elephant, operating at a much deeper level, and being the one really in charge, responds with ‘Yeah! Right!’
But, there is a quick option and that is using distraction to ‘Seize the moment’ in a self-fulfilling cycle in which ‘the next moment’ is created based on how you filter your view of the current moment; filtering that is based on how you believe the world operates.
Distraction deals with immediate situations by interrupting unhelpful cycles with extraneous actions such as going for a walk or making a cup of tea. Although this approach can make for a good starting point, it does require conscious and on-going effort as you deal with each and every occurrence of the unhelpful event – of course repetition of this cycle may in itself lead to a new, more helpful, habit but it can be a bit wearing dealing with the same old situation time and again.
Understanding is not enough
Excluding drugs, permanent change usually comes about through meditation or the scrupulous development of new habits and ways of thinking (the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) which helps to explain why intellectual understanding of what is happening is not enough. What is required is a change of your underlying beliefs which in turn leads to a change in your behaviour.
Hardiness expands your comfort zone and provides the deep personal wherewithal that keeps you going in the face of setbacks. It is an evolutionary mind-set in which new thinking leads to new habits which lead to new behaviour which leads to new experiences but, keep in mind that although you can change what you experience, the new thinking comes first!