The 6 habits of buoyant people

Buoyancy is a type of resilience specific to low-level hassles and setbacks. While resilience is most often associated with severe adversity, buoyancy focusses on the challenges we face every day. If we can cope better with the small things, we equip ourselves with the tools required to deal more effectively with bigger life challenges.

The theory behind buoyancy has its roots in educational psychology, where it’s used to describe the difference between students who successfully negotiate their way through academia and those who seem to be continually bogged down by one setback after another. In school and university settings, these challenges might include a poor grade on a test, low motivation or having to juggle competing deadlines and other demands.

While these relatively minor yet personally significant hassles may not seem important on their own, they accumulate over time, chipping away at our ability to cope. If, for example, you have a fallen out with a family member, you may react differently if you’ve had a particularly stressful day — a minor disagreement can develop into a major ordeal. Coping with the disappointed of not being selected for a job interview can give our feelings of self-worth a hit and diminish our confidence, but if we’ve experienced similar setbacks during the preceding days or weeks, our ability to bounce back is weakened further. As poet Charles Bukowski explains, it’s the shoelace that snaps with no time left.

But we’re also affected by other circumstances. Spilling coffee on a crisp white shirt is annoying, but if we do it minutes before we need to give an important presentation, the entire experience takes on an extra dimension.

We see those individuals who cope effectively in these situations as buoyant because they share several qualities that provide greater protection from the negative consequences of daily hassles and setbacks. We generally refer these qualities to as the 6Cs — Confidence, Coordination, Control, Composure, Commitment and Community.

1. Confidence

Confidence refers or self-efficacy — the belief we have in our ability to complete a task successfully. People with a greater capacity for self-efficacy are likely to persevere for longer because they feel they can complete the task. They also believe they will recover if their efforts are unsuccessful, so are less likely to give up when things get difficult.

2. Coordination

Or the tendency to plan, set goals, manage time and develop useful habits and routines. Someone who sets realistic yet challenging goals and systematically works towards achieving these goals is more likely to persevere. Such habits also reduce procrastination, especially if we break goals down into smaller sub-goals.

3. Control

People need to believe that they can influence their own outcomes, including failure. Psychologists often refer to this as locus of control, or the way we attribute the causes of outcomes. We perceive these causes as being internal or external and stable or unstable. Someone might attribute their failure to succeed in their job as something internal (it’s about them) and stable (it cannot be change). Here, they may see failure as inevitable; perhaps they come to believe that they aren’t intelligent enough, a factor that is thought to be fairly stable across the lifespan. Such thinking may also prevent us from doing things, such as thinking ‘I’m not intelligent enough to go to university so I won’t bother trying’.

However, if the same person views their failures as due to a lack of motivation (internal but unstable), they can work to improve motivation and gain more control over their behaviour. Additionally, perhaps failure is because of something external, such a lack of training. They could then correct this by requesting extra training or seek advice from those who they view as more proficient. Successful people, therefore, control outcomes by changing their behaviour.

4. Composure

Our fourth C is composure — the ability to remain relatively calm under pressure. This doesn’t mean the absence of anxiety because tolerable levels of stress motivate and prepare the body for action. However, high levels of anxiety affect us both cognitively and physically, and people better equipped to deal with it perform better. Gradually placing ourselves into increasingly anxious situations can help build confidence, and greater levels of confidence can reduce feelings of anxiety. Also, breaking anxiety provoking tasks down into more manageable chunks helps to reduce the burden placed on other physical and cognitive resources.

5. Commitment

Commitment comes in many forms; we might call it conscientiousness or grit. Commitment refers to the tendency to keep going and stick with the task, even though it might be difficult. It’s linked to personality traits, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t nurture it with support. It also has links to the other Cs, such as our commitment to accomplish a goal or the way it can increase our confidence.

6. Community

Our sixth C (community) takes a broader approach, recognising the importance of the wider environment. Support mechanisms play a major role in how successful people are, including the way they negotiate setbacks and other daily obstacles. Networks of support, in whichever form they take, help to build confidence and offer advice when things go wrong. Writers, therefore, might seek support and advice from other writers at varying stages of their career.

These six factors represent a model of daily resilience that takes into account both individual and social-wide aspects of life. Some of them (such as coordination) we can view as skills to be learned, while others (e.g. composure and confidence) are more similar to traits that can be nurtured and encouraged.

My new book ‘Becoming Buoyant: Helping teachers and students cope with the day to day’ is now available.

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now

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