Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.
Sweaty and uncomfortable I trudged on up the side of the mountain, calves like blocks of molten lead, lungs gasping for oxygen with each ragged breath.
No, I wasn’t on the South Col of Everest. Just 20 minutes walk from the carpark on the Remarkables Mountains in New Zealand found me dispirited and not at all resilient, while my husband and 12 year old son strode ahead. My husband’s joking, “So how does it feel to be the slowest person in our party?” strangely failed to improve matters.
Resilience is important for our well-being. According to Reivich and Shatte (2002), we use it to overcome obstacles, steer through everyday adversities, bounce back from setbacks, and reach out to achieve meaning and purpose in life. Mountaineering builds resilience – “and no wonder”, I say on a bad day, “It’s just a constant stream of challenges, adversities and setbacks”. Scaling a mountain under your own steam, facing fears, dealing with cold, tiredness or unexpected setbacks, both demands and builds resilience. It builds resilience skills such as emotion-regulation (staying calm under pressure), realistic optimism, impulse control and of course, self-efficacy.Just as there many ways to climb a mountain, there may be many ways to build resilience. Today, instead of disputing and challenging my way up the mountain, I found myself (uncharacteristically) accepting the pain and focusing instead on how I would feel at the end of the day. I knew it would feel worthwhile to summit with my husband and our son on his first roped mountaineering climb. Building shared positive family memories is an important value of mine and so is helping my children develop their sense of self-efficacy.
Motivation and Mindfulness
Once I focused on this, my motivation surged. This was a worthwhile and important goal, and pain wasn’t going to stop me. Instead of pushing myself up the mountain, my goal drew me – in good humour, even if scared at times – to the summit.
My approach was similar to that used in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) as developed by Steve Hayes. ACT emphasises mindfulness and acceptance; observing and accepting what is happening, and then taking action in alignment with one’s values. As McCracken and colleagues have shown, this approach has been successfully used to reduce anxiety and depression in chronic pain patients by encouraging them to pursue meaningful life goals inspite of their pain.
Brown and Ryan argue that mindfulness can bolster autonomy from within and so enhance autonomous self-regulation. Mindful acceptance may therefore help build the resilience skill of emotion regulation while taking action in alignment with one’s values will, arguably, build the resilience skill of ‘reaching out’ to develop a more meaningful life.
We reached our peak. I noticed that my joy came more from empathy and connection than a sense of increased self-efficacy. What surprised me most was how much more pleasant the climb became once I connected with a powerful reason to climb. I was climbing for my reasons, and felt self-directed and connected to my family.
The self-concordant theory of goal-setting by Sheldon and Elliot argues that we will put more effort into goals that are consistent with our interests and values and so increase our likelihood of success. Additionally, it provides evidence that the more experiences an individual has of autonomy, competence and relatedness during the goal striving period, the greater the increases in well-being are likely to be on goal attainment.
For the record – on that day, at least — age did win out over youth. My stamina and positive outlook outlasted my son’s. Ironically though, it was his presence that reminded me of something ‘greater than myself’, connected me to deeply-held values and bolstered my intrinsic motivation to achieve our goal. The ‘team’ returned hand in hand to the carpark, with tired muscles but feeling proud, content and closer than when we started.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. Linley & S. Joseph, (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Trumpeter Press.
Hayes, S.C. & Smith, S.X. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. USA: New Harbinger Publications.
McCracken, L., Gauntlett-Gilbert, J., & Vowles, K. (2006). The role of mindfulness in a contextual cognitive-behavioral analysis of chronic pain-related suffering and disability. Pain, 131, 63–69.
McCracken, L., Vowles, K., & Eccleston, C. (2005). Acceptance-based treatment for persons with complex, long standing chronic pain: a preliminary analysis of treatment outcome in comparison to a waiting phase. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 1335–1346.
Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Sheldon, K.M. & Elliot, A.J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), p.482-497.
This article appears in the Positive Psychology News book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Images from personal collection provided by the author.