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…

Jump Jump

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.

References

  • 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.

Mindfulness as a Meta-Competence for Positive Interventions

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…

Mindfullness - Meditation

A common goal of positive interventions is to affect at least one element of PERMA or adjacent constructs of wellbeing in a desired direction. As positive interventions require consciously carrying out certain goal-directed behaviors (occasionally, over longer periods of time), it is reasonable to argue that the capacity to consciously direct one´s attention (as practiced e.g., in mindfulness exercises) is a meta-competence that will help to strengthen our capacity for self-regulation and thereby to successfully carry out most, if not all, positive interventions.

This notion is in line with self-determination theory. It asserts that human motivation is based upon of two different categories: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. People carry out intrinsically motivated actions because of their inherent gratification. In that case, only a minimum of self-regulatory effort is needed in order to sustain these behaviors. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated behaviors require a certain amount of self-regulatory effort in order to be sustained, where the level of regulation needed varies according to the extent of perceived autonomy. Perceived autonomy in turn varies from complete external regulation, via introjected and identified regulation, to integrated regulation, which in its psychological properties comes as close a possible to intrinsic motivation (Brown, & Ryan, 2004). The authors conjecture that, with the exception of early childhood, most of our behaviors are externally motivated at least to some extent so that increasing our capacity for self-regulation is crucial for living a productive life. In addition, they reason that in order to experience intrinsic motivation, a person needs to MBSR) is one way of working towards that goal.

Salovey, Caruso, and Mayer (2004) propose that emotional intelligence (EI) is a key element in leading a successful life. On closer inspection, it is reasonable to argue that there is a distinct overlap between the concept of mindfulness and the conceptualization of emotional intelligence. The aforementioned authors define EI as the capability to reflect on emotions and at the same time to utilize emotions to facilitate thinking. They contend that EI can be grouped into four sets of related skills: (a) perceiving emotions in others and oneself; (b) capitalizing on emotions to facilitate reasoning, e.g., by evoking certain emotional states to foster problem-solving or creativity; (c) understanding emotions, e.g., the antecedents and implications of certain feelings; and (d) dealing with emotions so that that personal development is enhanced. I argue that, while not all elements of emotional intelligence can be narrowed down to mindfulness, at the least engaging in conscious perception and reflection of one´s emotions is a crucial element of mindfulness.

Interestingly, Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall, and Oaten (2006) argue that self-regulation can be conceptualized as a limited resource similar to a form of energy. When this ‘psychological capital’ has been spent, a person temporarily experiences a condition of ego depletion, a state where additional exertion of self-regulation is considerably less effective than usual. It seems that the same resource is employed for a variety of activities that have little in common other than that the self is modifying its primary response in a given situation. In addition, there is considerable evidence that we are able to increase our ‘self-regulatory muscle’ by means of regular exercise. These improvements typically are not restricted to the specific task domain of the exercise, thereby supporting the notion that improving self-regulation functions by strengthening a universal capability rather than a specific competence. The authors introduce several exercises that help to strengthen our capacity for self-regulation, e.g., physical exercise or correcting one´s posture to an upright position whenever it comes into consciousness. I maintain that practicing mindfulness can be another way of strengthening our self-regulatory muscle. In turn, this should help to sustain the required effort when carrying out a positive intervention, especially over a longer period of time.

Finally, if practicing mindfulness indeed promotes the successful execution of positive interventions, this outcome should be reinforced by additionally cultivating our self-efficacy in this domain of life. Self-efficacy can be described as a specific kind of belief about our capability to organize abilities to achieve a chosen objective in a particular setting. Therefore, the concept plays a crucial role in goal-directed self-regulation for several reasons: First, the level of self-efficacy influences the goals we set for ourselves. Typically, the higher our self-efficacy in a specific domain, the more challenging the goals we choose. Second, it influences the psychological reactions we experience in the process of working on a goal. E.g., under a condition of high self-efficacy, we tend to deploy more effort in the face of challenges. Third, self-efficacy directly influences specific areas of our performance, in that people who display a high level of self-efficacy tend to use their mental resources more effectively when trying to solve a given problem (Maddux, 2009). Taking all this into account, it can be assumed that cultivating mindfulness will help to develop self-efficacy through enabling successful execution of positive interventions.

To summarize: I argue that cultivating mindfulness as a technique for controlling our conscious attention can function as a valuable resource when trying to perform positive interventions. Being able to concentrate is beneficial to self-regulation which in turn is an important prerequisite for the successful application of positive interventions. This experience of success in turn strengthens self-efficacy which in turn helps to sustain the required energy for staying on the worthwhile path of personal development.

References

Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1802.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken: Wiley.

Maddux, J. E. (2009). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2. edition (pp. 335-343). New York: Oxford University Press.

Salovey, P., Caruso, D., & Mayer, J. D. (2004). Emotional intelligence in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 447-463). Hoboken: Wiley.

Goals: Why SMARTIES are smarter than SMART…

It is the same story each year, isn´t it?

  • I really want to lose weight…
  • I really want to quit smoking…
  • I really want to be physically fit…
  • I really want to have my own business…
  • I really want to meet the wo/man of my dreams…

I guess that´s what the top-5 list of New Year´s resolutions would look like. The problem is: most of these goals have about the same half-life period as that hangover that welcomes a lot of us on New Years´s morning. Yet, per se, goal-setting is not a bad thing – quite the opposite is true. The motivational and performance-enhancing effects of goal-setting are among the most thoroughly researched issues in academic psychology.  If you´d like to know more, please read this article that succinctly summarizes 30 years of goal-setting research.

Besides, there´s lots of help available on the net. When you type in “how to reach goals” on Google you´ll get more than one million hits. Most of these will display smart content. To be more precise: some information on the SMART framework. SMART is an acronym that originally stems from project management theory.* There are lots of slightly different versions on the internet. The most common probably is this one:

Specific: A goal should be stated in a markedly tangible way. The more precise, the easier it will be to take the necessary steps. An example: Instead of “I want to work out more often” it is better state something along the lines of “From now on, I will go jogging twice a week for 45 minutes (on Tuesdays and Thursdays right after work). Additionally, I will do weight training on Saturday afternoons for 45 minutes.” This could be refined even more. As a rule of thumb: the more precise you are able to describe to another person what you intend to do, the better.

Measurable: A goal (as well as the distance between the initial situation and the goal) should be quantifiable. Without measurement, there´s no progress check. Without progress, there´s no lasting motivation. An example: Instead of “I want to lose some weight” it is better to state something along the lines of “I want to weigh 140 pounds and keep that weight as a steady state. In order to achieve this, I will lose 4 pounds on average over the next 6 months – and then keep my weight right there.”

Attainable: A goal should be achievable – but definitely display a certain amount of difficulty. Goals that are completely unrealistic typically destroy our motivation. On the other hand, goals that are reached to easily usually do not yield the success stories we really yearn for. Yet, there´s another connotation to this criterion. We should put our efforts in something that personally attainable – a goal should be in our personal “sphere of influence”. For instance, “Finding the man of my dreams” goes against this criterion. It´s much more helpful to plan concrete actions that are conducive to that overarching goal, e.g., enrolling in a dancing course.

Relevant: A goal should be relevant, in other words: important and meaningful. This may sound self-evident – but it is not at all trivial. Rarely do we question the motivation behind our goals sufficiently. Why do I want what I want? Is this really my goal? And if not: For whom or what am I doing this? Should you realize that a goal is chiefly driven by extrinsic motivation please do exercise some caution. The most beneficial kind of goal is a self-concordant objective – in other words, a goal that is aligned with our deeper values and motives. Following a self-concordant goal is a satisfying process in itself – so no matter if you reach the goal or not: you will profit from trying to do so. From this it follows that one important prerequisite for “good goals” is a sufficient level of self-awareness. One way to attain this is getting to know your (character) strengths. You´ll find a free scientifically validated test here (create a profile, then choose the „VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire“).

Time-bound: A goal should have a reasonably defined time frame. Without this, there is no rigorous progress review. Additionally, most people are motivated by deadlines – so why not use this extra kick? I guess an example is not needed here.

Ok. So this is the original SMART framework. I assume that most of my readers have been at least somewhat familiar with this. Now the question is: Why do so many personal changes endeavors fail? Is SMART useless? Probably not. But incomplete, most likely. Therefore, here´s my proposal for an extension – based on science and my personal experience as a coach:

SMARTIES

Implementation Intentions: Peter Gollwitzer, a German professor of motivational psychology, has developed a method that tries to bridge the ever-looming implementation gap:  so-called implementation intentions. Because of their structure, they are also called “If-Then-Plans” (Alternatively: “When-Then”).  They function by connecting planned behavior with triggering cues in the proximate environment. Two examples: 1) “Right after I have laid down my briefcase when coming home from work, I will put on my jogging clothes and go for a run. If the weather is really bad, I´ll use the exercise machine instead.” 2) “If I notice a strong urge to smoke, I will put a chewing gum in my mouth immediately.” Once again: the more concrete the plan, the higher the chance for following through.

Exceptions clarified: If you want to create a new habit, making no exceptions at all over the course of the first months is the fastest road to success.  At the same time, it is well-known that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Therefore, it is very helpful to give some thought to the potential occurrence of exceptions and setbacks. For instance: What does smoking one cigarette once in a while mean for somebody who tries to quit? From my experience with coaching clients I know that people tend to frame these exceptions to the new rule as a total failure of the change project – which in turn extinguishes all of their motivation.  In terms of sustainable change, it is therefore helpful to define which exceptions to the new rule will be acceptable – without calling into question the overall endeavor.

Systemic Perspective: Finally, I highly suggest giving some thought to the following issues (this is comparable to a Force-Field Analysis in organizational change management):

How does my goal fit in with the goals and aspirations of important people in my personal context (the external system)? E.g., if you would like to work out from now on for 5 hours per week: Is this time you usually spend with your significant other? And if yes: How do you intend to “compensate” for this?

How does my goal fit into the texture of those goals and intentions that are already in place (the internal system)? It is useful to ask which positive intentions (secondary benefits) are fulfilled by those behavior patterns that you would like to change/eliminate. Your chances of establishing a new behavior pattern are much higher if you manage to transfer these intensions/needs into your new mode of being: By way of example, most smokers do not smoke because they like the taste. Rather, smoking fulfills a calmative function. For some, it´s a means of weight control. Additionally, there is a social aspect to smoking that needs to be considered. So if you want to quit, it is highly advisable to give some thought to the question of how to integrate these requirements into your life as non-smoker.

By the way: it cannot hurt to get some external reference to keep yourself on track. The earlier you manage to turn the envisioned behavior into a habit, the better. In 2014, I use my smartphone, specifically the Good Habit Maker and the app Balanced.

 

* The original source of the SMART framework is this article (most likely): Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.

 

Picture source

If you can´t dream it, you can´t do it!

In a lot of self-help books (of the shallow kind…), you’ll get to read the sentence “If you can dream it, you can do it” – which supposedly has been coined by Walt Disney. I acknowledge that this saying is well-intentioned – yet well intentioned and well done are oftentimes light years apart. There are simply a lot of things which sometimes all of us, and often most of us, cannot do – no matter how strong we believe. However how hard you exercise, you will never run as fast as Usain Bolt. No matter how hard you study, you will never be as smart as Steven Hawking. No matter how hard you work, you´ll never create the next Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. There is a Usain Bolt, there is a Stephen Hawking, and there are Jobs, Brin/Page, and Gates – but they are “singularities”. And no matter how many books sporting titles such as “The 10 Secrets to being like Steve Jobs” you´ll read – there´s a 99.999% likelihood of failure.

But I do not want to be a messenger of pessimism here. In fact, I do believe in the power of belief. It´s just that we have to turn things around in order to make it work. If you´d like to have science on your side, the saying should go like this:

If you can´t dream it, you can´t do it!

No man in this world can run a mile (1,609m) in less than four minutes. This has been an unwritten law during the first half of the 20th century. Innumerable athletes had tried to conquer the so-called miracle mile; some came close, but no one was able to beat that time. There even were physicians who claimed the human body per se is not capable of performing that feat.

However, impossibility did not know that somebody didn´t give a sh.t about impossibility: Roger Bannister, a young British athlete, just didn´t believe in the widespread doctrine. In a series of preparatory runs, he came closer and closer to reaching the impossible. Finally, at Oxford’s Iffley Road arena, on 6th May 1954, under rather bad external conditions, he finished the mile in 3:59.4 minutes – new world record.* You can watch a race between Bannister and his closest rival at that time, John Landy, a couple of weeks later here.

While this is very impressive in itself, it is not the point of the matter. The really fascinating fact is: Suddenly, by the end of 1954, a total of 36 athletes worldwide were able to beat that time. Now what has happened here? Was there a sudden advance in the training methods? Or the doping substances? I don´t believe that. Rather, I believe Roger Bannister has overthrown a collective self-fulfilling prophecy. He broke “the spell”, he crushed the mental blockade that had bedeviled his generation of fellow athletes.

Bannister had what psychologist like to call high self-efficacy, the specific belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations. High self-efficacy is associated with a wide array of positive outcomes, while a lack of self-efficacy is a good predictor for failure – irrespective of actual capabilities. Low self-efficacy is the psychological equivalent of “If you can´t dream it, you can´t do it”.

But no amount of self-efficacy will help us do what´s not doable.

* The current world record is held by Hicham El Guerrouj (3:43.13).

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