We’re all in search of solutions on how to best navigate and handle life’s challenges. According to recent research, mental toughness, or MT, is a huge asset, helping us navigate an astounding array of difficult situations.
A recently published systematic review in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology dug into of mental toughness and the impact it has on work performance, well-being, and even sleep quality. MT can be understood as a measure of your ability to handle stressful situations depending on if they have certain positive characteristics like confidence, control, commitment, and the ability to take on a challenge. Lead author Ying Lin, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, and her colleagues described MT as a “vital trait,” and one that makes a difference in the workplace and beyond.
The review looked at 51 papers all examining the relationship between MT, education, and work performance, psychological well-being, personality and other psychological attributes. When it comes to education and learning outcomes, studies showed that the commitment dimension of MT—the ability to directly focus on something—correlated with performance on the task at hand and disregard irrelevant information.
High MT individuals also do better at work. A study conducted in the UK found that those with higher levels of MT held more senior positions in organizations, another study supported these findings and reported that those with higher MT were given higher ratings by their supervisors. The authors do note, however, that the link between MT and career achievement is unclear since MT could have been enhanced after rising to more senior level positions rather than the other way around. It’s an association more than causation.
Not only does MT impact work performance, but other studies have found huge consequences for mental health. People with higher MT had lower levels of stress, anxiety, depression, the research says, and they’re also better adjusted and satisfied with life. MT was also associated with fewer indices of burnout, including physical fatigue, cognitive weariness, and emotional exhaustion. Being able to deal with stress and, in turn, reduce stress is especially important since high stress levels can impair our mental health and cognitive function. Relatedly, high MT is also associated with a better night’s sleep.
Various studies conducted on athletes suggested that those with high MT and motivation are more likely to have greater emotional stability and positive outcomes in demanding situations. They also found that MT had a positive association with optimism, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.
These studies have some limitations such as a lot are self-report, some are out of context since they only focus on athletes, and many have not replicated their findings. Despite this, a few major conclusions can be drawn when it comes to our emotions, cognition, and behavior.
The authors found that individuals regarded as mentally tough are more likely to have more control and confidence when confronted with stressful scenarios, and, in turn, this could lead to them having better psychological well-being. As mentioned earlier, from a cognitive standpoint, MT individuals can focus on specific tasks better. Behaviorally, MT individuals are better at managing stress by adopting coping strategies and techniques such as self-enhancing humor and motivational imagery.
Some literature suggests that those with high MT tend to be “callous, selfish, and malevolent in their interpersonal dealings,” and given that most of these studies are self-reports, we can’t be certain of why or how MT helps produce all these results. Still, all these robust findings suggest that MT does have a rather positive impact on an individual’s life and could potentially be used as a health intervention strategy to improve an individual’s overall well-being.