Facing difficult challenges and overcoming them builds self-confidence, teaches self-control and tends to foster an attitude of conscientiousness towards others, who may also face difficulties.
Adversity, painful and something we all hope to avoid, can have a positive impact on our character. We acquire qualities such as persistence, self-control, conscientiousness, self-confidence and curiosity from experiences with adversity.
And it is these qualities that matter, perhaps more than training and specific on the job skills when it comes to success in life.
In order to study “success” researchers often look at success in school, completion of degrees, maintaining employment, making a livable income, refraining from illegal drug use and not divorcing as markers of life success.
James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago who in 2000 won the Nobel Prize for economics, has investigated the question of success.
The evidence he has found points not to intellectual ability as central to life success, but to non-cognitive skills or, in other words, personality traits.
But, problems can occur in developing these traits. When an individual or child is faced with overwhelming adversity or significant life challenges over which they have no control, they don’t learn self-control, nor do they learn persistence. Instead, they are more likely to learn helplessness or hopelessness.
Abuse or experiencing multiple crisis that occur one after the next without time for recovery are two examples of overwhelming adversity that can impact those personality traits connected with life success. According to Doctor Nadine Burke Harris, studies that show that poverty-related stress can affect brain development, and inhibit the development of non-cognitive skills.
When you are physically abused as a child, repetitively belittled and berated, or witness abuse in the home, your body releases stress hormones. These hormones physically damage a child’s developing brain.
Too much stress leaves children hyper-vigilent, unable to focus and, as a result, unable to learn.
These adverse childhood experiences can be quite pervasive and don’t contribute to success, but rather lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, behavioral problems such as substance abuse, criminal behavior and self injury and physical health problems, such as STDs, cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes.
The good news is that our brains are capable of changing, growing and learning throughout our lives. Counteracting and retraining the brain is not easy, but some treatments, such as mindfulness training and DBT have proved effective in helping people change emotion, behavior and, in some cases, pathways in the brain.
Woman on clifftop photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 23 Oct 2012