Be en-courage-d to walk on…

 

By Shannon Gostelow

Provisional Psychologist

supervised by Julie Crabree, Lyn Worsley and Sylvia Ruocco

 

‘Courage doesn’t always roar.

Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying

“I will try again tomorrow”

 

The above quote stopped me in my tracks.

It was printed up on a local notice board. I pass that notice board most days. But this day I stopped. Momentarily caught by the words and the idea that came from them. A tumble of thoughts fell out. (Possibly even audibly…;))

I instantly considered the word’ courage’ in a different light. It was being metaphorically described using opposite words e.g. ‘quiet voice’ and ‘roar’! And it gave emphasis to the importance and validity of the ‘quiet voice’. Not the ‘roar’. It suggested that it is just as courageous to quietly persevere day by day as it is to brandish your sword and dive ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’ (Shakespeare:)).

Is this true? Is it just as courageous to get up and try again as it is to act heroically with great physical valor? Is it an act of great courage to keep persisting despite the difficulty? What does psychology say about it?

Well psychology tends to agree.

Key researchers and academics Seligman and Peterson (2004) explain courage as:

the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal.

 (Or in the colloquial words of John Wayne “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”)

The researchers add that courage is a character strength happily situated amid the lofty heights of the strengths of wisdom, justice and humanity. Not bad. Furthermore, these researchers suggest courage is made up of several parts, i.e. bravery, persistence, integrity and vitality.

Pausing there a moment… bravery…yes that’s commonly associated with courage. Integrity and vitality are the reasons for, and strength of, the brave act…but persistence…? There it is again. The concept of persistence is also inherent in well trotted out sayings like ‘‘get back up on the horse’ and ‘if at first you don’t succeed try, try again.’ These age old proverbs aptly describe persistence but do not necessarily advocate it as courage. However, in the above researched description persistence is a completely valid form of courage. So…the ‘quiet voice’ that whispers to try again tomorrow? Officially validated.

What we have is that bravery ‘roars’ and perseverance is the ‘quiet voice.’

However BOTH display courage.

Another psychology researcher (Putnam, 1997) considers courage to be of a physical, moral or psychological nature with:

i)physical courage characterised by overcoming fear of physical harm,

ii) moral courage characterised by overcoming fear of social disapproval or rejection of one’s moral integrity and

iii) psychological courage characterised as overcoming fear of the pain in confronting fears, anxieties and mood instabilities.

Lets look at these in terms of some examples.

The western social and cultural emphasis on physical acts of bravery constituting courage is fairly entrenched. It seems that our society doesn’t often equate quiet perseverance with noisy brave feats, nor does it usually consider both to be courageous. For example, one rather more readily thinks of the heroic actions of a surf life saver swimming out to save a child caught in a rip when one thinks of a courageous person. Right?

Somehow the person persistently working with the homeless each day and fighting for some dignity for them doesn’t conjure ‘a courageous person’. A selfless, kind, humanitarian person perhaps…but not a courageous one…The perception of society clouds the view because, in essence, both surf lifesaver and aid worker are people acting courageously. They are simply different sides of the same coin. One is a more physical bravery, the other a more moral persistence. Both display courage.

There are many mental health concerns that require great perseverance in addressing psychological symptoms until they become manageable for example eating disorders, some personality disorders and chronic depression or anxiety.

*So HOW can one persevere and be courageous?

  1. With simply an awareness that by persisting you are courageously helping the situation. For example, if you are being guided by a therapist and you are persevering in addressing your mental health symptoms, then you are making a difference in your own journey to better health and your actions are psychologically courageous.
  2. Work on choosing optimism more often. Optimism assists perseverance because it is associated with positive mood and more effective problem solving. Optimism involves explaining ‘bad’ circumstances as external (it is due to other factors not me), unstable (it can change and get better) and specific (there is a reason which can be learnt from).
  3. If you have children start them learning persistence early on. It gives them their best chance. We live in a society where we constantly try to shield and perhaps ‘protect’ ourselves and others from hardship-there are positives about this of course, however, it also has the capacity to make it difficult to learn perseverance and apply it when it is necessary. How much or little perseverance one has is significantly shaped and honed through childhood. So teach and encourage children to ‘try again’ and applaud the attempt regardless of the result. They will build up a bank of perseverance and courage and may more successfully push through adversity where others struggle.

Our society squarely places emphasis on courage as being physical acts of great bravery, relegating ‘trying again’ to the side of the road and labeling it as ‘not succeeding.’

This could not be further from the truth.

Armed with the information about the true psychological nature of courage which recognises the inherent value of ‘trying again’, I say be en-couraged to persist in the face of obstacles and listen to the courageous whisper to ‘try again tomorrow’ 🙂

In her recent blog, Clinical Psychologist Christina Ott exhorted compassion and courage be adopted in equal measure in life…

…which includes that quiet voice, the ‘unnoticed’ tasks, the attitude to persevere and face fears, and the decisions to choose integrity.

They all have value and, without roaring, exhibit great courage.

References

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55(1), 44-55.

Putman, D. (1997). Psychological courage. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 4(1), 1-11.

 

Older age…the Autumn of life

By Shannon Gostelow

(Provisional Psychologist, supervised by Julie Crabtree, Lyn Worsley and Sylvia Ruocco)

 

JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Nelson Mandela, Sir Robert Menzies.

Sputnik, the Moon landing…

‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Peanuts’ comic strip.

Melbourne Olympics, ARPANET.

Invention of colour television AND remote…

 

Do I have your attention?

…it might be because you are over 65 years old…and the above people, events and technological advances lived or occurred somewhere in your lifetime.

(I may have lost a demographic or so around the ‘Peanuts’ reference and probably just in the time it takes you to read this blog technology will have whirled ahead so fast that Generation Y will go… “What’s a remote?” whilst feverishly waving their arms around in the air in order to change the tv channel…)

So, slightly older adults who fondly recall ‘soon to be outdated devices’ such as tv remotes, these statistics might also pique your interest…and possibly gain the attention of your younger counterparts…

  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 1 in 4 Australians will be over 65 by the year 2056.
  • The fastest growing age group in the world are the ‘oldest old’ or those aged 80 years and older (UNPD, 2002).

So there are a lot of you… And you are growing fast…

With these statistics in mind, and as older adulthood both is and will be personally significant to a large number of us, it is pertinent to reflect for a moment on some positive and even, dare I say it, beneficial aspects of ageing.

Firstly, advancing age is often synonymous with increasing wisdom…but this conventional belief is not consistently supported in psychological research. Research actually suggests that those who are wiser may age more successfully and that age does not, in and of itself, create wisdom. However, one of the agreed upon multifaceted aspects of wisdom is emotional regulation, and this has been positively associated with ageing.

So…emotional regulation is a positive. Remember that.

Now just to momentarily digress…

It does have to be said that normal ageing does result in some degree of general cognitive decline. One area which gradually becomes more difficult is reasoning or deliberative decision-making. Using an autumnal metaphor one group of researchers described the decline of detailed and reasoned decision-making as akin to the green leaves of deciduous trees slowly withering and falling away (Peters, Hess, Vastfjall, & Auman, 2007).

HOWEVER… (this is in bold because of the noteworthy resourcefulness of ageing adults)…jumping back to emotional regulation… older adults simply limit the demands on the deep, considered decision-making processes by relying on and enhancing emotive processes instead. Decisions based on emotions are more efficient and closer at hand for older adults…so they are enhanced. It is like older adults automatically default to emotion-based decisions. The same group of researchers mentioned above furthered the seasonal imagery by likening the enhancement of emotion in decision-making to leaves turning yellow, orange and red in the Autumn i.e. bright and resilient.

One major theory called socioemotional selectivity theory (or SST for short) also asserts that social and emotional goals are favoured and focussed upon in older adulthood as a natural consequence of the perception of limited time left in life. Along with naturally gravitating toward emotional goals older adults display a marked avoidance of negative emotions and a preference for attending to positive emotions, a bias termed the positivity effect. Studies do overwhelmingly show that older adults tend to avoid negative emotional information with preference and better memory for emotionally positive faces, especially those expressing happiness in the form of a smile.

So to recap: older adults tend to have highly attuned emotional decision making skills and are motivated and able to enhance positivity and avoid negativity.

Sounds great to me.

In fact, if harnessed these natural psychological age changes may assist in building resilience against developing symptoms of some mental health disorders such as Depression in later life. An emotionally positive focus whilst relegating negativity to the back rows is a very beneficial process and seems to occur somewhat more naturally in older adulthood.

If you are not yet convinced of the benefits of relying on positive emotions in older adulthood and you are saying “What about if an important rational decision needs to be made free of emotion?”…Well, it is also evident that if a situational goal is deemed important enough, i.e. if the decision is important enough, the focus on emotional goals can be superseded in the short term by those elusive reasoned thinking processes! So reasoned, detailed thinking can make a comeback where necessary. Impressive.

It seems as though, when it comes to ageing, the phrase ‘you win some you lose some’ is fairly apt. Even though as humans we are not ‘evergreen’ trees and our leaves do fall eventually, the new and enabling colours of Autumn act as wonderful recompense. Along with needing to take it a little more slowly on the stairs (;), comes great experience and accumulated knowledge guided by a more emotionally positive outlook of the past, present and future. This is beneficial indeed. There is a lot to be gained from living or witnessing others live in the positive Autumn of life.

References

Carstensen, L. L., & Mikels, J. A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and          cognition: Aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14,117–121. Retrieved from             http://www.jstor.org/stable/20183003

Hess, T. M., & Ennis, G. E. (2011). Age Differences in the Effort and Costs Associated With Cognitive Activity, The Journals of Gerontology. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbr129

Meeks, T.W,& Jeste, D.V. (2009). Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview. Archives of General Psychiatry.  66(4):355-365.     doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.8

Peters, E., Hess, T.M., Vastfjall, D., & Auman, C. (2007). Adult age differences in dual information processes: implications for the role of affective and deliberative processes in older adults’ decision making. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(1):1–23.

Xing, C., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Aiming at Happiness: How Motivation Affects Attention to and Memory for Emotional Images. Motivation and Emotion, 30:249–256, doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9032-y