Building Superhero Resilience for Everyday Life (Pt 2)
By: Kevin Byer
Last week I shared part 1 of some tools and strategies that research shows can help us build the heroic quality of resilience within ourselves, through cultivation of focus on what is controllable, and through building on a personal sense of hope. These strategies can help individuals and organizations better thrive in adverse situations through improved physical, emotional and mental well-being, reduced likelihood of burnout, improved vitality, sense of fulfillment, self-efficacy, and hopefulness. In the past I've facilitated superhero resilience workshops in schools and organizations for both students and staff around these strategies, but I'm writing this article because I'd also love to make this accessible for a wider audience of anyone that might benefit. I recognize the entirety of it is pretty hefty for a single article, so here we are with part 2! This week I'll be sharing key resilience building strategies around Optimism, and Purpose.
Optimism – (Being a glass half-full kind of person)
Have you ever noticed a tendency to focus on the bad things that happened in a day more than the good ones? If so, you're not alone! While trait optimism can vary, people in general tend to be naturally skewed towards negative outcomes as a survival mechanism, which something referred to as negativity bias. This bias towards the negative exists within us to try to protect us from harm, by making us more alert to threats and dangers. As life and the type of threats we face in daily life has changed over the last several centuries, the way that this bias presents has changed with us.
Nowadays it might show up as paying more attention to negative events than positive ones, learning more from negative experiences than positive ones, or by focusing on what we lack vs what we have. News networks are well aware of this bias and inclination of attention, which is why we see much more of a focus on negative news stories than positive ones.
While this bias can help us in some ways, our brains are also shown to be neuroplastic, meaning they adapt to what we focus on, and this negativity bias, or hyper-focus on negative, can really hamper resilience, because we begin to expect the worst, and our brain changes to reflect that. The more we focus on what we don't have, the harder it is to appreciate what we do. Over time, a negativity bias can lead down a path towards depression, and hopelessness.
Fortunately, that neuroplasticity can also go the other way as well, and just like with weight training for muscles, regular habits that counter this negativity bias can help our brains adapt over time to become more skewed towards optimism, where we are more able to appreciate and find the blessings in our lives, leading to increased resilience, as well as greater feelings of happiness, joy, contentment, and satisfaction. It can improve our relationships with others, as well as improve our energy levels, and sleep quality. It helps us to develop a growth mindset, in which setbacks or negative events can be seen as opportunities rather than backbreakers.
While not all superheroes are what you would see as optimistic, the ones that are, such as Superman, Spider-man, The Flash, Captain America, and Wonder Woman, are more resilient because of that optimism. One of the best ways we can cultivate optimism for ourselves is through adopting a regular gratitude practice. I'm someone that has been through depression and struggles with high anxiety, and this is a practice that's been really helpful for me, and has helped prevent me from slipping back into depression several times. I'll be sharing some tips from research and my experience below!
Cultivating optimism through gratitude
There are many different types of gratitude practices, but one of the most common and comprehensively researched for its effectiveness is the gratitude journal, in which participants would write down a list of things they are grateful for 5 minutes at a time, 1-3 times per week. This can be done in a physical notebook, on your phone, or if none of those are available, even mentally. Try it out and see how it feels over the course of a few weeks!
Tips for gratitude journaling:
● Use the full 5 minutes for reflection on what you’re grateful for. Many will think of something they are grateful for and then move on to the next, but our brain needs time to process the gratitude in order for it to start building those neural networks.
● It’s ok if you don’t get to experience the feeling of gratitude despite the reflection. Sometimes it’s difficult to feel grateful in hard times, and that’s ok. No need to shame yourself or feel like you aren’t doing it right if that is the case, as this will only contradict the purpose of the exercise. The fact that you are putting the time in to reflect on gratitude is worth celebrating in itself, and like strength training it takes regular practice before it can start to feel easier or more natural.
Some great questions to dive deeper into reflection include:
o “What does this bring to my life?”
o “Why am I grateful for this?”
o “What would my life be like without this?”
Purpose - (Acting from a place of deep meaning)
One of the best ways that one can cultivate a sense of purpose is through living in alignment with their core values. Often when we set goals, we set them towards outcomes, rather than values. While this approach can help lead towards achievement of these outcomes, it’s also common that we see people not experience the same level of fulfilment as expected when those goals are achieved, and are left with a sense of emptiness. Part of this can be because our desire for these outcomes can be influenced externally.
Core values connect a person to a greater sense of meaning, fulfillment and purpose. When we set goals that help us align ourselves towards these values, we help increase their presence in our lives, helping us to become more resilient. Captain America is a superhero we see in pop culture that is a great example of someone living in alignment with their core values. He sees the best in people, and that's reflected in the actions he takes as a leader to constantly pick his teammates up, and put them in positions to be successful with their strengths. Compassion and integrity are some of his core values, and every action he takes comes from that space. It's why he was chosen to be worthy of the power he was given, and why he always thrives as a leader. His embodiment of his values are why he's resilient, and why he can 'do this all day' no matter how much he has to go through to continue to embody those values.
While we may not have the Super Soldier Serum that gave him his superpowers, his commitment to living in alignment with his core values despite being pulled in different directions by others trying to push their values on him, is something anyone can aspire towards. Doing so can lead to building a more fulfilled and meaningful life in which we are more connected to the things that deeply matter within ourselves.
I’ve included a sample template of a Captain America themed exercise titled ‘The River of Truth’ below, to help anyone align with their core values. Try it out and notice how it feels to make shifts that bring more experiences of these core values into your life! You can do this with as many values as you like, but I recommend starting with your top 3.
*Tip: if you’re not sure which core values are the strongest for you, think of one of your most treasured memories, and take note of which values were present that made is so special for you. Was it a feeling of accomplishment? Connection with family or loved ones? Community? Adventure? Awe? The values present in these moments are a great hint towards their high value for you!
*A video version of this exercise is also available on Youtube: https://youtu.be/sSaVTHPTih0
Through practicing key evidence based strategies towards resilience, such as Control, Hope, Optimism, and Purpose (or CHOP!), we can build on our own personal resilience to better thrive and experience success in adverse situations life may throw at us, just like a superhero.
Through building this resilience, we can experience great benefits on both a personal, and collective level, and it can help reduce the impact of stress and anxiety, increase joy, satisfaction and sense of fulfillment, as well as improve productivity and longevity. Even if you feel like you’re in a good place, adopting some of these habits can help reduce the likelihood that unexpected trials or adversities will knock you off that path.
I hope you’ll find these tools and strategies helpful as you continue forward in your own heroic journey!
About the author
Kevin Byer is a workplace wellness specialist that has worked for CAMH, and is currently working for the University of Toronto as a member of the Health Promotion Program team. He is a partner member with Wellness Works Canada, and is passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive shifts in health and wellness through an evidence informed approach. He is also the creator of ‘Unleash the Superhero Within’: a series of wellness workshops aimed towards cultivating heroic character qualities such as resilience, mindfulness, compassion, leadership and courage. The superhero theme stimulates engagement while also helps to reduce stigma of challenges related to mental and emotional health and wellness
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