As a clinical and sport psychologist, my job most often entails helping an individual make some changes. These changes can range from improving one’s mood, reducing stress and anxiety, quitting smoking to performing at one’s personal best in a competition. Often, I have to help the patient or athlete generate specific and attainable goals, as well as increase their motivation and commitment to achieving them. In a previous blog (December 15, 2016), Dr. Nate McClelland discussed the concept of “grit” and the research of the psychologist, Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance toward a goal. This “stick-to-it-iveness” is an excellent predictor of achievement and success in a wide range of areas. It is similar to the construct of “mental toughness,” which has fairly recently emerged in the sport psychology literature. This term reflects the qualities of tenacity, resilience and fortitude. It is one’s ability to maintain determination and focus in an effort to complete a task despite difficulty and adversity. Mental toughness or grit requires extreme willpower, confidence, and commitment. An individual must be able to exercise significant self-control in their pursuit of their goals. Most elite athlete’s display this commitment and passion to be the best he or she can be. Certainly, we saw many examples of this grit and mental toughness in our athletes at the recently completed Winter Olympics at Pyeong Chang. They had to cope with the difficult training, overcome significant injuries, and adapt to challenging conditions to be successful. The accomplishments of Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn easily come to mind.
Most of us, however, are not elite athletes. We struggle to get to the gym regularly, practice enough, or avoid procrastination. How can we maintain self-control, delay gratification, avoid distractions, and remain confident and passionate in the pursuit of our goals? I think Dr. David DeStefano, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, has some wonderful ideas on how we can do this. Dr. DeStefano, author of the book “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride” recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on “How to Keep Your Resolutions.” Dr. DeStefano wrote about how the vast majority of us never keep our New Year’s resolutions because we are relying on willpower alone to accomplish our goals. He asserts that research shows that willpower will wane over time and actually can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being. Dr. DeStefano asserts that it is rather our social emotions, especially gratitude, compassion and pride that can be most effective in helping us achieve the self-control necessary to delay gratification and achieve our goals. These emotions help us to connect with others, persevere on challenging tasks, and work toward a future goal. His research has shown that gratitude and compassion have been linked to better academic performance, healthier eating, increased exercise, reduced impulsivity, and less use of tobacco and alcohol. Additionally, using these positive emotions can reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Unfortunately, several surveys have found an attitude of gratitude to be declining. Dr. Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard, blames the self-esteem movement for this trend. He believes that parents were led to believe that they should center their lives around their children in an effort to help them feel better about themselves. The result, he asserts, is that children ended up feeling less grateful and more entitled. The good news is that a sense of gratitude can be developed at any age. Research has found that with intentional practice, gratitude can become a habit. Both children and adults can be taught to “think” gratefully.
So for those of you, who want to make some positive changes in your life, find some things that you are passionate about. Challenge yourself with some specific goals and understand the reasons why you want to achieve them. Visualize yourself reaching those goals. Stay positive, determined, and focused on those goals. Celebrate your successes; take pride in your victories along the way. Learn from your obstacles and your mistakes, and let go of things you can’t control. But, please don’t forget to feel grateful for the things that you have or empathy for those in need. With Grit and Gratitude, you are destined for success!