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Resilience: Hardiness

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

happy couple talkingTo be described as 'hardy' means to be strong and tolerant of stressful situations. Some people seem to be more hardy than others when it comes to dealing with stress. Studies show that emotional hardiness contributes to resilience with regard to medical and mental illness. In this section of this document, we describe how emotional hardiness can be developed and cultivated.

According to the research of psychologist Susan Kobasa, three elements appear to be essential for an effective stress-hardy mindset to exist: challenge, personal control, and commitment.

  • Challenge. Stress-hardy people view stress as a challenge that they can potentially overcome if only they can understand it properly. Their habit of looking at stress as a challenge to be overcome motivates them to address the causes of their stress in positive ways. This active approach to stress may be contrasted with the more common approach, where stress is viewed as an unfortunate, overwhelming or even paralyzing force that overwhelms rather than motivates.
  • Personal Control. As a group, emotionally hardy people tend to accept challenges and to work to overcome and master them. Even when true mastery of a challenge is not possible (e.g., when a situation is not possible to control), hardy people work to find what possibilities do exist for mastery and pursue them. When faced with the loss of employment, a hardy person would seize upon opportunities for exploring new employment options rather than become depressed and demoralized.
  • Commitment. Part of the reason hardy people are able to stay in the game and persist in their coping efforts is because as a group they are committed to an active, engaged stance towards life. They feel that their life has purpose (whatever shape that may be), and that purpose motivates them to actively attempt to influence their surroundings and to persevere even when their attempts to influence their surroundings don't appear to be working out. A person who has no purpose in life – no motivation and no commitment – will not be able to lead a resilient life. On the other hand, resilient people find meaning in their activities even when faced with significant adversity precisely because they are committed to finding that meaning; towards taking an active, problem-solving approach to life.

Developing Hardiness

Although people arrive at adulthood with different levels of emotional hardiness, most anyone who wants to improve their hardiness abilities can do so by working to take a more active and committed approach to their lives. Developing emotional hardiness basically involves finding ways to interpret adversity in terms of a personal challenge to be overcome.

As an example, have you ever felt burned out at work? There are worse situations to be sure, but anyone who has ever dealt with burnout before knows how stressful it can be to go through the motions of a job you no longer care for. People take different approaches in dealing with their job burnout. The less hardy ones stop caring about their work, do only what is required to not be fired, and end up numb or constantly irritated. By contrast, emotionally hardy people react in a more active manner, searching for the causes of their burnout, and then taking action to remedy it either through a fresh approach towards the old work, or by seeking out new work.

Taking the hardy approach towards solving your problems means asking yourself the difficult questions, and having the courage to take risks. Why has the burnout occurred? Perhaps it is because you are working in a job that does not reflect your values. Reconstructing the purpose that lead you to choose your current position could help you figure out what went wrong. If you never had a sense of purpose before and simply drifted into your current job, perhaps exploring jobs that do inspire you could take you in a more productive direction. In any event, the emotionally hardy approach to job burnout involves redefining your goals so that they are more inspiring, identifying what you can do to accomplish them, and then pursuing those goals with determination until you get some results, or conclude that you need to readjust your goals again.