Grit and flow have both become part of the essential vertebrae that form the backbone of positive psychology. They are analogous to blue or red paint on an artist’s palette; one can certainly create a composition without them, but doing so would mean neglecting a huge portion of the spectrum. Simply imagine discussing the particulars of a paragon performance or the heroic stories of United States Army veterans without these concepts. Grit and flow manage to operate independently, but they also complement each other very well in the service of achieving a life of flourishing. In this article, I will first examine the concept of grit and suggest that it might be closely related to the Finnish term sisu (which refers not only to a state of focus, but also to a ´quality of the heart´). Subsequently, I will then examine grit and flow together, and describe how certain types of flow experience, but not all, are dependent on grit. The combination of these two attributes can lead to a separate higher state, which I will call ‘glow’.
Dr. Angela Duckworth began her current monumental research project on achievement by searching for an answer as to why some people succeed while others do not. She encountered a pivotal character trait called grit, one which has a pronounced long term element to it (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Being ‘gritty’ means consciously deciding to push forward in the face of adversity, failure, and physical or emotional pain, without knowing when the trials will be over. Majority of the research on grit has been performed in the context of either the military or among prominent business leaders and high academic achievers. By focusing only on these subsets of supposedly gritty people, we might be missing some aspect of its larger role in society. There is a real, perhaps hidden degree of grittiness needed by some people to get through their daily lives (think of the less privileged among us who struggle every day just to be able to feed their families). The Finnish concept of sisu is a term that lacks an exact synonym in any other language, but can be described as guts, determination, and the capacity to endure any hardship (Aho, 1995). Much like sisu, I suggest that perhaps grit is fundamentally about the heart, and not merely about focus or diligence. I am not convinced that grit is necessarily best epitomized by the prominent business leaders of our world (whose path to success in many cases was almost pre-ordained by their privileged upbringing), but rather by those who endure severe stress in their daily lives or those who choose to stand up against the injustices of this world (much like the character of Mattie Ross in the film “True Grit”). I believe our study of grit would benefit tremendously from a closer look into this less visible, but equally passionate, showcase of resilience in people’s daily lives.
Flow is described as being in a state of full immersion in a given activity, and performing it at one’s highest level. Flow contributes to inner growth by making the individual feel a sense of skill and full capability, especially after the successful execution of the activity in question. Although flow is often perceived as a state of effortless concentration, in reality this is often far from being the case (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). This is one area where grit differs from flow; we are usually aware of our gritty effort (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007), whereas in flow we lose ourselves in the moment. Flow is a bit like happiness: it sounds like it would be easy to achieve, but to get to and maintain this state is actually hard work. Both flow and grit involve an element of real mental self-mastery, and achieving success in both is determined by the amount of effort and sacrifice one is willing to make. I reason that although a basic state of flow can be achieved by diligence and persistence (without necessarily requiring tremendous grit), the attribute of grit becomes crucial in performances requiring extraordinary skill or where the margin for error is almost nonexistent (for example, competing in Olympic-level athletics). In some activities flow comes easily, such as when reading a captivating novel; but competing at the level of an Olympic athlete requires thousands of hours of practice, and maintaining this level of determination is not possible without indomitable commitment to one´s long term goals. I call this particular flow experience, which requires grit, by the name of ´glow´. For people striving to boost their well-being through becoming grittier or experiencing more flow in their daily life, the essential key is to enhance control over one´s mind and to be aware of the power of consistency in practice. Csikszentmihalyi (1999) credits the quality of our life, and whether we feel flow and accomplishment, to what we allow to enter our consciousness on a daily basis. We hold the keys to our own well-being and happiness.
Accomplishment and engagement are essential elements of a flourishing life, and both can be fostered through conscious effort. As outlined above, flow allows us to feel engaged to the present moment while contributing to our personal growth. Grit is a fundamental element for achievement and also for reaching flow in activities of extreme difficulty. However, perhaps not all activities that require long term commitment (such as, for example, earning a university degree in a competitive program) can be described as requiring grit. Additionally, not all gritty activities lead to flow, as they are so intense that losing oneself in the moment is neither possible nor beneficial. Perhaps future research on grit and sisu may lead us to discover fascinating nuances of this elementary building block of human life.
“The truest wisdom is a resolute determination”
Aho, W.R. (1994). Is sisu alive and well among Finnish Americans? In M. G. Karni, & J. Asala (Eds.), The Best of Finnish Americana (pp. 196-205). Iowa City, IA: Penfield Press.
Csikszentmihalyi M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067