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What Is Mental Toughness and How Does It Work?
Sorensen, Sarah Hope
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Withstanding inevitable periods of stress and strain is a vital component of human survival. On this basis, fostering invulnerabilities through the study and promotion of individual protective factors needs to be a fundamental and influential aspect of psychology research and practice. One such protective factor is mental toughness. In particular, mental toughness is cited as an influential personal characteristic that promotes positive human functioning in the face of inevitable life stressors. Despite its potential for facilitating human excellence and flourishing, however, the usefulness of mental toughness remains hampered by underlying conceptual and contextual limitations. The purpose of this thesis is to address these limitations in view of engaging ongoing empirical and practical work to disseminate its benefits. Through a series of investigations designed to address these limitations, this work specifically sought to understand what mental toughness is, as well as how it works. With regard to what mental toughness is, elucidating the meaning of mental toughness was approached from the outside-in. Studies comprising this thesis first sought to understand the relationship between mental toughness and its surrounding conceptual network; followed by consolidation of existing conceptualisations; and finally, a more nuanced understanding of intricate contextual differences in mental toughness meanings. Findings showed that, together with hardiness, psychological flexibility, grit, resilience and mental fitness, mental toughness and its related constructs primarily facilitate a maintenance of psychological wellbeing and functioning. The additional value of mental toughness remained inconclusive. It is argued that mental toughness, as an overarching concept that encompasses its neighbouring constructs, is an explanation for these unexpected findings. Within mental toughness, maintenance of consistency or stability under stressful or pressurised situations is an important and agreed-upon element of mental toughness. However, findings suggested that specifying the specific entity that is held consistent or stable may remain a context-specific detail. Within specific populations, whereas resilience and determination emerged as a common themes, context-specific differences in the meaning of mental toughness was evident. In particular, laypeople are more likely to identify overarching terms, such as mental strength, and outcomes, such as overcoming obstacles, and achieving/operating under pressure as central to mental toughness, rather than specific psychological processes inherent in existing expert and sporting-focused conceptualisations. Drawing the above findings together into a single definition, mental toughness was reconceptualised as a resistance to psychological disintegration under stress. As well as understanding what mental toughness is, this thesis explored how mental toughness works. Following findings in aforementioned studies that highlighted the contextual nature of mental toughness, knowledge of the underlying system (vis-à-vis content) of mental toughness attributes was required to achieve an understanding of the phenomenon across contexts. To this end, using qualitative statements from laypeople, the final study identified that mental toughness attributes can be allocated to inputs of personal resources and stressors, strength and accommodation processes, and outputs of surviving, thriving and surviving. Through expanding conceptual knowledge of mental toughness in this way, the studies comprising this thesis further the empirical and practical utility of mental toughness. Specifically, this work adds to existing knowledge required for promoting thriving and preventing mental illness in the face of inevitable life stressors.