Somaesthetics: On the Role of Physical Exercise and “neck-down” Interventions in Positive Psychology

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

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Sir Winston Churchill, British prime minister during World War II, is often cited with the quote “First of all: No sports.”* At the same time, it is well-known that he experienced recurring bouts of severe depression all through his life. Churchill is publicly perceived as one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century – but he may have erred severely pertaining to the issue of physical activity. I will argue that building people´s self-efficacy and perception of agency should be a goal of all positive interventions, and that “neck-down” interventions, such as regular physical activity, are an easily accessible instrument to build up these resources.

In his review article that covers 30 years of research on goal-setting, Locke (1996) points out the importance of conscious goal-setting for motivational processes. To support this notion, he elaborates on different conditions and processes that foster the relationship between goals, motivation, and performance. For instance, he states that goal difficulty, goal clarity, and commitment to one´s goals are enablers of high performance across a wide array of tasks. In addition, he explicates how frequent goal-directed feedback and beliefs about the attainability of one´s objectives are beneficial to high levels of achievement. Ideally, these beliefs can initiate an upward spiral: Self-efficacy is conducive to attaining goals, which in turn builds up more self-efficacy, which in turn helps to attain more difficult goals in the future. Furthermore, Locke argues that the process of effective goal-setting can be taught and learned – which is important because reaching goals, especially difficult ones, is beneficial to build and sustain personal satisfaction with life.

Somewhat similar to Locke´s findings, hope theory (Lopez, Snyder, Magyar-Moe, Edwards, Pedrotti, Janowski, et al., 2004) stresses the human capacity for setting goals, envisioning approaches that enable us to reach those goals, and thus for summoning the necessary motivation to follow through. Hope is delineated as the expectancy that a change for the better is possible, thereby being a meta-resource for all kinds of change processes. Without hope, they would probably be no impulse to act at all. People can be hopeful about goals in general, broad aspects of life, and also very specific goals. The authors posit – again somewhat similar to goal-setting theory – that hope can initiate an upward spiral: Initial hope increases the probability for early progress which than acts as a resource for building further hope.

As expressed in the first paragraph, there is considerable support for the idea that physical activity such as regular jogging or working out at a gym can be a way to build up self-efficacy and optimism. Most interestingly, this increase in self-efficacy may not be confined to that specific domain of activity. There is some evidence that there may be a (positive) spillover effect to other areas of life. In this spirit, Richard Shusterman (2006) makes the case for a new research agenda called Somaesthetics. He claims that the branch of sciences labeled as “the Humanities” has neglected the role of the body over the last 2,500 years. Arguing that the body is the “tool” for each and every human performance, Shusterman posits that coming to a better understanding of the interplay between the body and human cognition and emotion could improve our understanding of (positive) developmental processes in general. In his flow of arguments, Shusterman suggests the body is a major source of agency and autonomy since physical movement is the perfect embodiment of exerting free will. Later in his article, he also elaborates on how performers of any every kind can profit from an enhanced bodily awareness since it will help them to practice (and subsequently, perform) more stress-free and therefore, longer. Yet, in his opinion, a fully functioning body is not just a means to an end, but can be an end in itself – since feeling healthy and fully-functional brings about a pleasure of its own kind.

Much in the same vein, Mutrie and Faulkner (2004) state that the body plays an essential role in human cognition and emotion. They summarize their article by stating there is convincing evidence that supports the link between physical activity and well-being, first by preventing mental health problems, second by functioning as a direct treatment of mental disorders, and third by improving the quality of life of people with mental health problems as well as the non-clinical population. Similar to Shusterman (2006), Mutrie and Faulkner believe this to be a result of the specific way physical activity is capable of strengthening self-efficacy and perceived autonomy, the feeling of being in control, and optimism. They conclude by saying that, in their opinion, regular physical exercise embodies the principles of positive psychology to a great extent and should therefore complement the extant canon of positive interventions.

To summarize: Building up self-efficacy, a feeling of agency, and optimism, is an underlying principle of positive interventions. “Neck-down” interventions can be instrumental in building up these general resources. To a varying extent, physical activity is accessible to (almost) every person on this planet, can be initiated at will, and comes at virtually no cost (in the case of jogging etc.). Yet, it is not only a means to end – but rather a pathway to well-being itself.


  • Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal-setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5(2), 117-124.
  • Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., et al. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 388-404). Hoboken: Wiley.
  • Mutrie, N., & Faulkner, G. (2004). Physical activity: Positive psychology in motion. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 146-164). Hoboken: Wiley.
  • Shusterman, R. (2006).Thinking through the body, educating for the humanities: A plea for somaesthetics. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 40(1), 1-21.
*However, there is considerable evidence that this may be a misquotation.

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