What Does Social Science Say About Hardship?

Research-Based Insight on Struggle

In recent articles on country music, I contrasted an outlook that sees struggle as a positive vs. a mindset that views struggle as negative. In this post I want to put that discussion in dialogue with research from social sciences (mainly psychology, education, and anthropology) showing that our mindset towards struggle can materially impact our performance, growth, and life satisfaction.

But first, let’s review some of the ground we’ve already covered. Drawing on the insights from Keith McCurdy, I looked at how parents can leverage the power of struggle to help their children become capable, mature, sturdy, and resilient. But we also saw that it is becoming increasingly commonplace for children to grow up believing that difficulty signals abnormality and dysfunction. Parents often project an expectation of happiness onto their children, who then feel a great pressure to be happy. Consequently, when children or young adults encounter difficulty, they easily lapse into depression, feeling that something must be wrong with them. Much contemporary country music colludes with these assumptions, preaching a false gospel of comfort, passivity, and weakness. 

Faced with these opposing viewpoints—one that says struggle is good, the other that says struggle is bad—contemporary social science offers some intriguing insight. The latest research shows that it’s a little more complicated than simply saying that struggle is either healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. Rather, what is more important is what we think about struggle and the mindset we bring to it.

Being Mindful about Mindset

In a discussion about anxiety and courage, clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson explained a fascinating finding about challenge and struggle. When two groups of people experience a stressor, with one group voluntarily embracing the stressor as a challenge and the other group having the same stressor imposed involuntarily, the people in the former group typically use an entirely different psychophysiological system for dealing with the stress—the same system associated with challenge and adventure. By contrast, the group that had no choice about the struggle didn’t approach it as a challenge but used the psychophysiological system associated with defensiveness and withdrawal. Both groups in the study faced the same struggle, but the struggle was only productive in the group that approached it as a challenge and opportunity for growth. The simple act of approaching stressors as a challenge, as something that can be leveraged for good, can lead an individual to thrive and become more courageous. 

Since most of us face hardships of varying kinds, we can leverage these findings for our benefit. By approaching unavoidable suffering as a challenge, an opportunity for growth, or a spiritual adventure, we can change the psychophysiological system we use for dealing with the ups and downs of life, resulting in greater resiliency and growth. In this way, we can reframe obstacles as opportunities and grow stronger as a result.

Mindset: Growth vs. Fixed

When engaged in this type of reframing, we can be helped by Stanford research psychologist, Carol Dweck. In her work with elementary school children, Dweck found that some children have what she calls “a growth mindset” whereas other children have “a fixed mindset.” Those with a fixed mindset perceive assignments as testing how smart they are, and how competent they happen to be. These students gravitated towards easier tasks in order not to appear stupid. But those with a growth mindset saw the purpose of schoolwork as helping them become smarter, and to push them towards further capabilities. When someone with a growth mindset is unable to do something well, rather than seeing that as a reflection on their innate ability, they see it as a spur to more practice. As Dweck explained in an interview with James Morehead:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

How a person thinks about struggle is important whether you are learning a musical instrument, a foreign language, a new skill, or studying to pass an exam. If we think that struggle indicates weakness and low ability, we will be less inclined to do what it takes to master material and to persevere through difficulty to reach our goals. We may even give up prematurely, concluding we just don’t have what it takes to succeed.

The Power of Reframing 

Dweck’s work has mainly been focused on education, but it shouldn’t be hard to see how these principles can transfer to other domains in life. Consider exercise. When we go to the gym, we don’t typically view the weight machines as a test for how strong we are, but as a way for us to grow and become stronger. 

Why is it that when we are worn out doing household chores, we often consider this a negative sort of tiredness, and yet we will pay money to go to the gym to experience equivalent, if not greater, degrees of fatigue? The difference, of course, is how we frame these activities. The whole context of a gym (with the idea that it is good for us and strengthening) helps to contextualize it positively, whereas culture tends to associate negative connotations with menial tasks like housework.

But what if the same mindset we have at the gym could be leveraged in other work contexts, including those with stereotypical negative connotations? That is a question that Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, set out to explore. Langer studied hotel maids who spend the majority of their days in constant motion, including lugging heavy equipment around hotel hallways. Surprisingly, more than two thirds of maids reported that they didn't get any exercise, despite the fact that their entire work day involved movement. Langer then divided the 84 maids into two groups and began educating one group about how much exercise they were getting each day. NPR’s Alix Spiegel explains what happened next:

With one group, researchers carefully went through each of the tasks they did each day, explaining how many calories those tasks burned. They were informed that the activity already met the surgeon general's definition of an active lifestyle.

The other group was given no information at all.

One month later, Langer and her team returned to take physical measurements of the women and were surprised by what they found. In the group that had been educated, there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.

It seems like by simply reframing their work as exercise, these hotel maids were able to start leveraging the benefits of exercise, not unlike going to the gym. Of course, this could be dismissed as the placebo effect, but referring to something as placebo is often a way to discount the power of mindset. What we think about our struggles—whether we frame them in a positive or a negative way—can determine how those struggles impact us. 

Dr. John Gottman found something similar in his work with married couples. If a couple approaches conflict as the enemy and thus assumes that low conflict is indicative of a healthy marriage, they often foreclose on opportunities for growth, and thus put the relationship in jeopardy. By reframing conflict as an opportunity to grow closer together, a couple can leverage uncomfortable conversations for healthy conflict resolution and deeper intimacy.

What if we applied this same growth mindset to all the struggles in our life and the lives of our children? What if we viewed all difficulties—from dealing with a teenager’s rebellion to learning a new skill for work—as an opportunity to learn, grow, expand, and thrive? 

Now to be clear, not all struggle can be reframed in this way. For some types of hardship—for example, when we are exposed to trauma, abuse, danger, or injury—the best course of action is to do whatever it takes to flee. Not all struggle is created equal. Yet a lot of the normal struggles we face in everyday life are a missed opportunity for growth. As the stoics understood many centuries ago, all it takes is a different mindset.

An Anthropological Perspective 

 Psychology and educational theory are not the only social science domains to underscore the importance of struggle. We can also learn from attending to anthropology and cross-cultural studies. A few years ago I spent some time dabbling in cultural anthropology and was intrigued to learn that while Anglo-American cultures generally fostered a negative idea towards struggle, this was not the case in many East Asian societies. Cultures that have been strongly influenced by Confucianism have tended to emphasize human adaptability, and thus put more emphasis on changing oneself through struggle, including working through frustration, confusion, and failure towards an optimal outcome.

Research published in Educational Researcher found that, when confronted with a child’s poor achievement, Japanese mothers were more likely to put it down to “lack of effort,” whereas American mothers were more likely to put it down to “lack of ability.” American mothers were also more likely to blame conditions outside the students’ control, such as the school environment and other external factors.

In fact, many of the same behaviors that Americans regard as failing (for example, struggling for a long time over the same problem), the Japanese think of as learning. As I explained in my Touchstone article The Cross of Least Resistance

To many Asians, the students who show they can persevere through repeated setbacks are the ones who are preparing themselves for great things later in life.

Wider research in cross-cultural psychology shows that these contrasting orientations towards educational struggle are rooted in the different ways Asians and Westerners perceive the development of character, intelligence, and skill. Most East Asians believe that these qualities result from what one researcher called “dull and determined effort” over long periods of time. But a majority of Westerners (particularly in the English-speaking nations) tend to view character, intelligence, and skill as resulting from innate ability or sudden flashes of insight. Accordingly, Americans are prone to take the lack of prompt success in some endeavor as a sign that the person just doesn't have what it takes, instead of as a reason to engage in further struggle.

When Effort Becomes the Reward

More recently Dr. Andrew Huberman has done some intriguing work on the benefits of struggle, including the benefits that accrue from voluntarily putting ourselves in difficult situations, such as cold-water immersion and intermittent fasting. A colleague of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford, Huberman explains that the holy grail of motivation and drive is learning to see effort and friction as reward. Indeed, by retraining ourselves to perceive strain as good, we can actually increase our baseline dopamine and live more rewarding lives as a result.

Huberman's work is primarily focused on performance optimization. But the basic principle applies in a variety of contexts. By understanding that struggle can be good for us, we can learn to see effort and friction as a type of reward. 

Further Reading

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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