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.

Positive Psychology: Is it about Pleasure? Or Meaning? Or both?

The silence on Mappalicious is officially over. I´ve been travelling over the last 14 days and obviously have been too busy actually living my life in order to write about it in addition. And while doing this, I´ve made an interesting discovery: you can spend your days in New York (arguably the most exciting place on Earth) with a bunch of really nice people and a great program (Broadway musical, boat tour on the Hudson, party at one of the best rooftop bars in town etc.) – and still end up crying your eyes out in the hotel room. Just because you miss baby boy so much. True story…

Mika_Nico

Which raises a question on the nature of Positive Psychology:

Is Positive Psychology about leading a happy, pleasurable life? Or is it about leading a virtuous, meaningful life?

The answer is: both aspects are important – but if you would ask Marty Seligman, he´d say the emphasis clearly should be on cultivating strengths, virtues, and meaning. While experiencing lots of positive emotion definitley is a goal in Positive Psychology (because it just feels good to feel good; but more important: because positive emotions produce lots of beneficial ‘side effects’) they are only one element (P) of PERMA, Seligman’s theory of human flourishing.

On the overarching level, it is possible to distinguish between the quest for hedonic (pleasurable) and eudaimonic (virtuous) experiences. Both clearly are important for leading a ‘full’ life, but Eudaimonia may just be a little more sustainable in the long run. When creating a 2×2 matrix with Eudaimonia on the one axis and Hedonia on the other, it will look like this:

Hedonia_Eudaimonia

  • When a human being experiences high levels of positive emotion and the presence of meaning, worthwhile goals, connection to other human beings etc., this can be characterized as ‘the full life’ or ‘Flourishing’ in the official diction.
  • The absence of both dimensions is called ‘the empty Life’ or ‘Languishing’ – a condition that is closely tied with depression.
  • If someone is high on the hedonic dimension but relatively low on Eudaimonia, I like to call it ‘the sweet life’ (‘Settling’ in the official lingo). By way of example, imagine the prototypical billionaire heir that squanders his family´s money on the French Riviera. It´ll surely be pleasurable but may also seem somewhat shallow.
  • On the other hand, when there´s a considerable lack of Hedonia, this condition can be termed ‘the sour life’ or ‘Striving’ in official Positive Psychology speak. You might want to imagine the epitome of an old unmarried lady that spends all of her time and money on ‘good causes’ but forgets herself on the way. It is admirable but may also seem a little ‘anemic’.

If you´d like to learn more: I´ve written an article in a coaching magazine on that topic about a year ago. It´s in German unfortunately – but I know that many German-speaking people are reading this blog, too…

Was Socrates a happy Man? And if he lived today – would he be a Blogger?

Socrates - Louvre

By Eric Gaba (CC-BY-SA-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The topic for the afternoon of the last day of MAPP immersion week was the trial that eventually lead to the death sentence of Socrates, arguably one of the most important philosophers of all time. There are some hints in the Apology, Plato´s account of the trial, that allude to the idea that Socrates ‘chose’ to be sentenced to death – in the sense that he could have gotten away with a significantly milder punishment, if had chosen to display a different demeanor. Yet, he stayed true to his own self (being a philosopher, asking lots of probing questions, and thereby being the ‘pain in the ass’ of most of his fellow citizens), which provoked the judges and most his fellow Athenians (“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy…”). Supposedly, there were some politically motivated reasons for his death sentence as well – but that is another story.

James Pawelski, Director of the MAPP program asked us an interesting question: was Socrates a ‘happy’ man? Obviously, it´s not possible to ask him any more – but the Apology contains some hints on that topic: when investigating the text for displays of PERMA, Martin Seligman´s definition of the elements of flourishing: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. While it is not clear if Socrates experienced a lot of positive affect (P), it is save to say that he displayed a high level pertaining to the remaining four elements: He obviously had something which he deeply cared about and regularly was immersed in, e.g., teaching his students (E). He also had a wife and three children, as well as his students and followers that admired and valued him (R). Socrates definitely experienced a sense of meaning in his life. He felt that it was his noble duty to be a philosopher and oftentimes spoke of his inner daimon that protected and/or guided him. And finally, we are still able to read about his deeds today – which obviously is not true for most of the other men of his time (A). Bottom line: While we cannot be sure about the ‘P’, there was definitely a lot of ‘ERMA’ in his life.

Let us rest the case here. But what about the other question? Would he be a blogger today? First, I assume, it is helpful to know how this rather strange question came into being. Unlike James, I am a psychologist and coach by training, not a philosopher. So I asked him about the psychological contract between Socrates and his fellow Athenians. While he had a lot of students that would actively seek him out, he supposedly also used his Socratic Method (basically: asking someone lots of questions until he finds the right answer by himself) on a lot people that really did not want to be bothered by him. James answered analogously, that Socrates probably would not want to be named a ‘patron of the coaching business’ – but that today, he might be a kind of (political) blogger. He would try to be the thorn in the side of the leading political class, exposing their flaws and misconceptions.

Once again, we cannot ask him anymore – but I kind of like that thought…