You experience determination when you have a goal to achieve, you recognize that there are obstacles along the way, but you feel confident in your skills and willpower to overcome them. For example, when you are faced with a demanding problem at work, when you have a busy week schedule ahead of you that you are eager to plan, or when you come across a difficult but solvable crossword puzzle in the Sunday newspaper.
Determination is an atypical positive emotion, because it arises when a situation is not (yet) as you want it to be. Its positivity is directed at a future moment when you expect the situation to be resolved. In this regard determination is similar to hope. The difference between the two emotions is the amount of control and self-accountability you feel in a situation. The archetypal behavior of hope is to await the outcome, while that of determination is to roll up one’s sleeves and get going. In reality, situations often combine controllable and uncontrollable elements and therefore trigger both emotions at the same time. For example, a student facing a difficult and important exam may feel both determined – putting much effort into studying, and hopeful that the exam will include questions for which they are preparing.
The two necessary ingredients of determination: a challenging goal and the confidence to achieve it, are also at odds with each other. The feeling of determination increases as the challenge increases, but at some point, the challenge can surpass your belief in overcoming it. This tension is captured in Flow theory1. Like determination, you experience Flow when you encounter a difficult challenge, but you also believe you have the skills to meet the requirements. If your skills exceed the challenge, you can feel apathetic or bored; if the challenge exceeds your skills, you can feel anxious or frustrated.
An important predictor for determination is optimism. Optimistic people generally have a positive outlook on the future and recognize both the potential benefits and losses in a situation. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to only see the potential losses and have lower confidence in their ability to overcome challenges. People who tend to perceive stressful situations as surmountable challenges are happier, have fewer mental-health issues, better relationships, and better physical health. A second predictor of determination is self-confidence: people who are satisfied with their qualities and see themselves as worthy are more likely to feel capable of rising to the challenge.
Many positive emotions broaden someone’s scope of attention, making people notice more things in their environment that are not directly relevant or urgent. For example, someone who feels serenity may sit on a bench and enjoy the sound of the birds. Determination is different, as it actually narrows a person’s scope of attention to focus on the challenge at hand. Determination functions as a strong motivator for behavior: it makes it easy for you to immerse yourself and stay engaged in what you are doing until the job is finished2).
Determination has a recognizable facial expression: eyes in a fixed gaze, tightened lips, and furrowed brows. This expression can easily be confused with the expression of anger or frustration. When someone gets closer to resolving the challenging situation, they may also start smiling.