We all know fear, disappointment, and heartache. And we all experience joy, optimism, and happiness. As stress becomes increasingly prevalent in our lives, we look for ways to shore up our ability to cope. While we can’t necessarily change our environment, we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Resilience isn’t a single skill; it’s a variety of skills and coping mechanisms to help us build a more optimistic outlook as a buffer when times get tough. There are four questions we can ask ourselves to start building our resilience muscle.
Am I operating from the inside out?
Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.
Focusing on the positive each day shifts our perspective. Writing down the things we are grateful for helps us keep them in mind. Reflecting on those moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.
Operating from the inside out is about focusing on others rather than ourselves. Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”
Am I willing to embrace failure?
To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. A mindset that is open to mistakes—and allows space to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them—creates a mental value system around learning. Opening our minds up to the possibilities of change exposes us to a world full of new skills, new opportunities, and new achievements. It takes courage to persevere in spite of setbacks. As Mark Twain put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Not succeeding is not the same as failing. We all experience successes and failures. But the only real failure is when we are incapable of recovering from setbacks. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” When you stumble, ask yourself whether you are focused on your mistake, or embracing the opportunity to learn from it.
Am I comfortable with my committee?
We all have experiences that color how we approach every aspect of our lives. Each of us brings our own filter into every interaction. It is this filter that creates stories, myths, and legends to resolve confusion and provide direction for each of us as we search for meaning. Many times, these stories come from authority figures – often family members, teachers, or others whose opinion means a great deal to us. And often, the stories are not kind.
There is a saying that a committee is a life form with several mouths, but no brain. Each of us has an inner know-it-all in our heads telling us we’re not good enough. We carry these voices with us throughout our lives, and they can hold us back when we need to move forward. Overcoming them means facing them head on and challenging the validity of the stories they are telling. Making peace with the inner critic means looking at our stories without judgement. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to help test the statements that your committee is making. Calling on past successes also serves as hard data that can help us challenge the negative assumption, move forward, and prove the committee wrong.
Am I choosing wonder over worry?
Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available. When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.
The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.
Putting it all together
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” It’s easy to be optimistic, upbeat, and positive when things are going well. When we’re having a tough day, however, resilience can be more challenging. Consciously shifting our perspective to create optimistic neural pathways takes repetition, practice, and persistence.
By shifting our focus to the positive, we can change our perspective to take a longer view of any situation. In spite of the myriad demands of work and life, building resilience over time helps us to pick ourselves up and carry on in the face of adversity. Neurons that fire together wire together—the more we practice resilience and nurture our recovery from stress, the more natural it becomes to have an optimistic, forward-thinking outlook, and the more capable we are of overcoming stress and moving forward in spite of it.
Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World