There can be little doubt that the uk is facing one of its worst mental health crises in modern history. With self harm increasing by seventy per cent over the last five years, one in three individuals succumbing to depression and a recent study showing a consistent link between poor mental health, shame and regret, it is clear that our mental health is facing challenging times.
Whilst we all value happiness, there are more practical concerns for the wellbeing of our nation, especially when considering the development of future generations. Increasingly, evidence that happiness is integral to health and good learning is being found and the implications are simple: a workforce where most individuals are unable to take care of themselves or solve their own problems will fail.
It is a phenomenon that shows itself over and over again in studies. When it comes to mental health, both positive and negative patterns broadly speaking are catalytic. For example, depression and low self esteem commonly correlate to shame (if I were a better person I wouldn’t feel this way). Shame, in turn, leads to avoiding contact with others and the outside world (what I don’t make contact with can’t hurt me). This, over time, can contribute to an individual having poor social support, poor coping skills as well as the poor self-esteem they started with. In contrast, high social support and what some describe as “the will to heal” are noted as key factors in our ability to work through times of adversity with success. In other words, if you have some aspects associated with good wellbeing, it’s easier to develop others.
By far the most important wellbeing trait in terms of surviving and developing others is a term coined as “grit”. Angela Duckworth describes grit as the ability to pursue a long-term goal in the face of both adversity and distraction, staying with it in the belief that your actions will eventually lead you to the outcome you desire. Features of grit might be described as resilience, tenacity, the ability to work hard, confidence in your ability to work towards a positive outcome and in my opinion, courage.
In positive psychology studies, grit has all the right correlations.
The ability to grow from trauma? Check.
The ability to learn better and develop greater intelligence? Check. The ability to surpass difficult circumstances? Check, check, check.
It stands to reason, then, that we need to do better at developing this trait in young people, not to mention ourselves, and the question is how we are to do this.
One important factor in developing grit is looking at our attitude, as a society, to risk. In her Ted Talk “To Raise Brave Girls, Encourage Adventure”, fire fighter Caroline Paul described how little we encourage little girls in particular to engage in risky play (a term describing play that explores boundaries and distance - climbing frames and zip wires being a good example) for fear of them being hurt. If we want to encourage them in the qualities of grit, then by definition, they have to practise fighting in the face of exactly such falls.
A similar issue we must look at is the attitude we have towards making mistakes in our society. Just as we fear the risk of physically playing, a fear of errors is increasingly a killer of mental play in the form of curiosity and consequent mistakes. If we are not willing to learn and explore, we both avoid mistakes and the learning that they create, academically and emotionally.
Once we have given a safe environment to learn about adversity, perhaps our most important task is then to teach the skill of bouncing forward. By that I mean understanding that the first way didn’t work, seeking support and trying a different way to reach the intended goal. As Thomas Edison said, he found 99 ways to not make a light bulb before finding the correct one – this was a man with grit!
One major part of supporting the ability to bounce is through creating a climate of kindness, understanding and empathy. Shame researcher Brene Brown famously said that nothing kills shame faster than the phrase “me too”, and if we want to encourage people to have grit, we have to allow them the experience of failing and being valued. Failing and being loved. Being valued because they are failing, because they are trying, and in trying they are showing courage, ambition and grit.
What follows this piece are some of Bounce’s research projects around improving personal confidence and grit. This central skill is essential to Bounce’s research and we encourage you to use the resources, give us your thoughts and stay tuned as we learn more. As Alfred famously said to Bruce Wayne – “Why do we fall sir? So we can learn to rise.”