How To Help Yourself Persevere When You Get Knocked Down

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If ever there were a good year to celebrate National Get Up Day — the day on which we celebrate the idea of perseverance, getting up and trying again after falling into a ditch for the fifteenth time — this is it. The quality of perseverance has been given a lot of attention by psychologists and scientists because it's critically important, both to individual success and to our progress as a species. Professor Cynthia Pury explains in The Encyclopedia Of Positive Psychology that perseverance, "the intentional continuation or reapplication of effort toward a goal despite a temptation to quit," has been fundamental to human history: "nearly all of the advances that make modern civilization possible require extended or repeated effort in the face of failure, fatigue, or boredom."

We've developed the ability to persevere so that we can survive, plant more crops when one lot fails, try a new invention when the first dozen don't work, and do the arduous work of building bridges or sanitation systems or complicated governmental bureaucracy when we'd really rather be sitting eating cookies. But how do we develop and enhance it, particularly when the task in question (yelling about the policies of a horrible administration, for instance) is incredibly tricky and we'd rather just give up?

A lot of perseverance behavior appears to be learned; scientists discovered in 2012, for example, that we can get a lot of our ability to be persistent from our fathers (and, you have to imagine, mothers who don't get credit). But we're also discovering that we can help our own persevering using other aspects of our environment, which can in turn help us push past the giving-up stage. Here's how.

Surround Yourself With Friends

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Social isolation can produce a whole heap of ills. People who are lonely on a regular basis have a higher risk of heart problems and a poorer immune system. But it seems that, according to research, persistently isolated people also see dips in their ability to continue with tasks despite their difficulty, and that it's wise for those of us attempting something that requires perseverance to have a strong social network.

That isn't how we usually think about perseverance: it's about lonely toil into the night to get something done whatever the cost, right? Not so much. Studies in 2001 and 2008 showed that people who don't have a lot of social contact experience lowered perseverance levels and less willpower, and are less capable of regulating their behavior in healthy ways (maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regiment, for instance). The lack of presence of other people, it seems, leads to a "so what" mentality where the importance of completing tasks or keeping going when things seem difficult is less important, because there's nobody to witness or cheerlead.

Even if you're an introvert by nature, it's likely worthwhile to have a community of like-minded people to help foster perseverance in adversity, regardless of what you're trying to achieve (writing a book, getting up in the morning, doing a difficult course, or learning a skill).

Reflect On What's Gone Wrong Before

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In some circles of psychology, perseverance is known as "grit," particularly as it applies to childhood education; there's a philosophy that greater grit helps learning, though results are mixed at the moment. It's gone a long way to helping how we understand perseverance, though. One study of grit, in 2015, found something interesting: while we're often taught to look at our past successes rather than dwelling on failures, the latter might be more useful when it comes to pushing ourselves forward.

The scientists found that people who were encouraged to reflect on their past failures (not dwell on them or beat themselves up, but look at them critically as ways of learning for the future) were more likely to persevere at difficult cognitive tasks. It also made them do better at the tasks and commit fewer errors. It's an interesting strategy: if you're stuck and can't get motivated, thinking back on past situations where the same thing happened might be the key to getting you going again.

Have A Bit Of Pride

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If you want to keep going at something, it helps to have pride in what you're doing — and feel, possibly, as if stopping would hurt it. That's the message of a 2008 study on the role of pride in motivation, which found that people with a bit of a proud outlook were more willing to persevere with tasks that fed into the pride itself.

Pride, the scientists explained, is " a positive, self-conscious emotion arising from achievements that can be attributed to one’s abilities or efforts," and can help people push through tasks that require short-term costs for possible long-term benefits. Part of it, they think, is because pride is a social emotion: we're often proud because of how we think an achievement will look to an observer, imagined or real (our parents, for example). In that sense, this perseverance tip goes back to having a supportive community you can "make proud" with your origami marathon/mammoth coding session/NGO run from your basement.

Take A Nap

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A University of Michigan study in 2015 gave everybody who's tried to push through an afternoon of aggravating obstacles pause: the secret to getting a better sense of perseverance, they say, is naps. Sleep plays a large role in our neurochemical health, and the Michigan scientists posed experiments to see whether or not a bit of a nap would help people's emotional balance and ability to persist when faced with problems.

The results were illuminating. People who had a 60-minute nap were more likely to stick with a difficult problem given afterwards and attempt to solve it for a longer period, and also showed better emotional control of their impulses (i.e. the urge to throw in the towel, or to try something you know won't work for the hell of it). Persistence is, it seems, partially down to emotional regulation and focus, and a bit of a midday kip may help you keep going even when the problems at hand require sustained attention.

Know When It's Time To Give Up

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When things are insurmountable, absolutely hideously unlikely to succeed, you must keep going, right? That's the lesson we learn from Frodo Baggins and other typical heroes, who see there is basically no chance for their quest and keep going anyway; it's part of our narrative of perseverance as virtue. A study in 2007, however, discovered that this may be very noble, but it's likely also very bad for our health, and that knowing when perseverance is futile is an excellent skill for survival and flourishing.

The study looked at teenagers of various personality types who were either willing to persevere in pursuit of a difficult goal or would eventually give in. Over the course of a year, they monitored their inflammation levels, the body's reaction to real or imagined threats, and noted that those who persisted even when the odds were exceptionally low for success had very high inflammation levels, which is bad news for overall health. The key, according to the scientists, is to give up if something doesn't work and will never work, and then jump back in immediately and find a new goal. That approach created the greatest emotional equilibrium, though it may only be the province of complete saints to be able to go "oh well, let's try something else" when a long-fought dream falls over.