Harness your Inner Resilience – and why ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ made me cry


Steven Burns

Hi! I’m Steven. I’m a professional therapist, coach, trainer & author with over 20 years experience. I teach the latest psychological tools and techniques to help you transform and make a difference.

It’s rare that a film makes me cry.

But this one did.

The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith was, for me, an emotional experience.

Strangely enough I didn’t feel particularly emotional during the moments of intense struggle and sadness that main protagonist Chris Gardner – played by Will Smith – experienced during his year-long stint of being a homeless salesmen.

But I was affected by what happened after the struggle: his eventual success and redemption.

I tend not to cry at sad moments during a film. I cry at the happy moments.

Whether that makes me weird or not I don’t know, but the moment when Gardner finally gets the break that lifts him out of extreme poverty was blissfully beautiful: a rare moment where I fully embraced the personal water-works.

I’m sure my reaction was “as a result of” his earlier struggles – if he got his big break during the first scene it just wouldn’t have been the same – but the reason for the tears wasn’t sadness related: it was an expression of sheer joy, bliss, and happiness for his success.

Who doesn’t feel good when they see someone, finally, overcome great adversity and achieve what they want.

Why is this?

I think it’s often a reflection of our own thinking. We all experience our struggles in life, ranging from the small to the significant.

So when we see someone else triumphing against the odds it’s inspiring. It gives us a glimmer of hope that we too can overcome our obstacles or demons — the hurdles that stand in our way preventing us from getting what we want.

But I think it also goes deeper than that.

The feeling of inspiration that is awakened when we see someone triumph over their difficult circumstances is primal; it’s linked to one of the strongest internal drives we have within as, as a human being: the drive to overcome challenge and adversity.

Just look at our history. Human evolution is an example of awe-inspiring persistence. We’ve consistently overcome every challenge that’s been thrown our way.

Many people might disagree with the specifics of how we’ve achieved this but it’s impossible to deny that we are robust problem solvers by design.

To overcome challenge and adversity is in our DNA: it’s woven into the very fabric of our being.

When it comes to overcoming our own modern-day challenges though, many people tend to forget this. Rather than appreciate that they are colossally resourceful by default, they buy into the idea that they are weaker than blancmange.

It’s an incredible trick if you think about it. We beat all the odds just to be alive in the first place yet some people can persuade themselves to give up on the first sight of failure.

Some people can harness incredible powers of resilience, for sure, but most don’t come close to appreciating just how powerful they can be when it comes to overcoming adverse conditions.

Deep within the bowels of our experience contains an ability to be strong and resilient that’s stood the test of time, but it can be all too easy to forget this.

What about you?

How do you deal with difficult circumstances?

How do you deal with set-backs or failure?

Do you rise up and face it from a place of colossal resourcefulness, or do you fold faster than someone with a weak hand at poker?

Being able to handle adversity and challenge is an essential quality to connect with and cultivate.

If you’re looking to achieve any kind of meaningful goal in life, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, your path will undoubtedly contain many blocks, obstacles and challenges.

How you react and respond to these adverse conditions will play a large part in determining how successful you will be.

So the key question is, of course, how do you do it?

How do you harness more of your innate, inner steel so you can triumph over adversity?

Well, there are many ways, but here are two imagination games you can play that will make a difference.

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Harness your Inner Caveman

In prehistoric times, our ancestors clearly had some serious shit to deal with. We’re talking huge, hulking, dangerous, stalking beasts regularly baying for their blood, or the constant threat of life ending disease or lack of food.

They clearly had to call on a quite tremendous amount of inner resilience simply just to survive.

According to evolutionary theory, we still have almost the same internal circuitry as our robust ancestors did.

Cultural evolution happens fast, but biological evolution happens at a painfully slow rate over millennia.

So because of this, we currently possess the same robust, inner circuitry for dealing with adverse conditions that our ancestors did. We might not be accessing it right now, for a wide variety of reasons, but it’s in there waiting to be connected with.

You see this suddenly pop out in people when they are pushed to their limit. It’s easy to get comfortable with the many modern systems we have in place to preserve our safety, but when people are thrown into moments of great challenge they often show quite remarkable feats of courage and determination.

If you watch the film 127 hours starring James Franco – the story detailing the lengths a climber goes to survive after being trapped under a boulder – you see this inner power coming out in spades.

It’s an extreme example but to a lesser extent this can be observed frequently. Think about the lengths someone would go to protect their child from danger, or the daily hard graft some people engage in just to put food on the table.

We don’t always access it but woven into the fabric of our being is a steely determination that can move mountains.

So harnessing your inner Caveman/woman is where you stop for a moment and, inside your mind, step into the shoes of your distant prehistoric ancestors.

This is of course, all done in your imagination. You have to act “As-if” and step into the perception you have of them.

From the perspective of a caveman/woman, who deals with significant daily challenges, how do you think you would react to your “modern-day problems”?

If you were to step into the shoes of your prehistoric ancestors and look at the problems you’re facing that currently prevent you from succeeding, how do they change inside your mind?

I think you’d see them quite differently. It won’t stop them from being challenges but it can help put them into perspective and trigger more of your inner strength.

When I do this, my inner perception of the problem shrinks considerably, and I feel my determination more intensely.

I still feel like I’m facing a challenge but it looks more like a manageable hurdle than a gargantuan mountain to climb. I get the sense that no matter what happens I have the innate resourcefulness to deal with it.

Not to say that “modern-day problems” aren’t significant of course. They can be, but we often don’t do ourselves any favours. We can magnify them in our mind and downplay our innate resourcefulness to the point where we feel we can’t cope.

So when you step into your imaginary caveman/women and tap into your colossal, innate determination how does that shift your perspective?

If it’s in your DNA to outlive dangerous carnivores then surely it’s possible to access enough inner strength to get a promotion, or find a partner, or achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.

Accessing your inner caveman/women won’t make the problem go away, but it can significantly change the relationship you have with it.

Engage your Inner Hope Machine

Hope is one of the fundamental mechanisms we use to overcome adversity; it’s the ability to see the world as a better place than what it currently is.

When we connect with hope it temporarily releases the pressure we are experiencing and makes us feel more resourceful. It makes it possible for us to set a new direction and then head towards it.

In fact, it’s usually when people “lose hope” that their struggles are significantly magnified. It’s not that the reality of the situation worsens, it’s just that they can no longer see the path out of their troubles.

There’s a phrase I heard a long time ago that stuck with me, and I like to remind myself of it during difficult times:

“When it’s winter, it’s a good idea to think summer”.

When we “think summer during winter” we imagine, inside our mind’s eye, a better future: one that contains significant improvements on our current situation.

Generally, if we want to get out of a bad situation, we first have to see a way out – or, at least a possible way out. This helps us set a new direction, but it also mobilises inner resources that can lead to action.

Having hope is not about deluding yourself. It’s important to appreciate the reality of a challenging situation while at the same time imagining a better future. It allows us to have an awareness of the problem but not be incapacitated by it.

From a neurological perspective, the circuitry behind this has been referred to as “The Seeking System”; it’s the internal machine that gives us anticipatory pleasure.

Whenever we find ourselves dreaming about a healthier, happier and more positive future, and feeling good about it, we are engaging with our inherent “seeking system”: we are making use of our “inner hope machine”.

Interestingly, it is also, apparently, the largest neural system we possess. It’s one of the reasons why human beings are obsessed with seeking out new and improved ways of living.

*Note: For more details on the seeking system, check out the book Archeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Orgins of Human Emotions by Jaak Panksepp (this is not an affiliate link).

So if you’re going through tough times then engage your inner hope machine by simply imagining a better future.

It doesn’t take much to do it.

Just sit back and spend some time exploring what life might be like if your situation were to improve.

When it’s winter, it’s a good idea to think summer.

Then brainstorm a possible list of actions that can help you get there.

Perhaps that’s why the film The Pursuit of Happyness made me cry, and why we can be so inspired when we see someone triumph over adversity.

It awakens something deep, primal and profoundly energetic inside of us.

It’s more than just a moving film; it’s a reflection of one of the strongest internal drives we have: hope and the desire to overcome challenge.

There’s tremendous power in that, and I think it’s inside all of us.

All the best,


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