“To Thine Own Self Be True”: Self-Concordance and Healthy Goal-Striving

Self-Determination TheoryPeople have goals. In fact, that may be the defining element of our human nature. We´ve been called the “Knowing Man” (Homo sapiens), the “Learning Man” (Homo discens) and even the “Story-telling Man” (Homo narrans) – among lots of other things. In one of their latest works, Martin Seligman, spiritus rector of Positive Psychology, and Roy Baumeister posit that we are “Homo prospectus”: the “envisioning man” – precisely due to the fact that we are always “drawn by the future”. We are always “on to something”: places to go, people to meet, things to do. On a closer look, it is strikingly odd trying to imagine a (living and healthy) person that does not have any goals, however small they may be.  To that effect, we are also drawn by our future selves. There is always an upgrade, a “Me 2.0”. It may wait around the next corner or in a distant future – but again: it´s hard to imagine a person that has stopped trying to “become something else” (and most likely: something “better” – whatever that may be).

So, if goals and goal-striving play such an important part in all our lives: Why does it go wrong so often? Why do people lose their motivation while being on their way? Or, even more interesting: Why do they reach their goals and end up being disillusioned and unhappier than they were before? Some very valuable answers to these questions are provided by Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and the Self-Concordance Model of (healthy) goal-striving (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), an adjacent framework.

Self-Determination Theory* suggests there are four distinguishable levels of motivation, or more precisely: regulations of behavior: integrated, identified, introjected, and external. The level is determined by the degree of internalization of a specific goal – you might also say: how close it is to our “true selves”; and it´s also a way of describing the path from very little to full autonomy in the process of pursuing a goal.

  • External: When we are forced to do something or carry out an action only because of an external reward (“In it for the money…”).
  • Introjected: When we rely on external goals and standards of evaluation, trying (more or less fruitlessly) to “make them our own”: E.g., doing something in order to raise our own self-esteem.
  • Identified: When we really get to the point of making a once external goal “our own”. This involves willfully appreciating a goal so that it is accepted as personally important.
  • Integrated: When behavioral regulation is entirely assimilated with self and therefore included in a person’s self-evaluations and beliefs about personal needs.

Integrated motivation shares a lot of attributes with intrinsic motivation but is nonetheless classified as extrinsic – because the goal in question is still pursued for reasons extrinsic to the self, rather than the inherent enjoyment of the task.

Self-Concordance and healthy Goal-Striving

The Self-Concordance Model takes the above-mentioned insights one step further. Let´s have a look at the abstract of the first scientific article describing the theory:

The self-concordance of goals (i.e., their consistency with the person’s developing interests and core values) plays a dual role in the model. First, those pursuing self-concordant goals put more sustained effort into achieving those goals and thus are more likely to attain them. Second, those who attain self-concordant goals reap greater well-being benefits from their attainment. Attainment-to-well-being effects are mediated by need satisfaction, i.e., daily activity-based experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness that accumulate during the period of striving.

Self-ConcordanceSo the basic idea is pretty straight-forward: We exert more effort when pursuing goals that are “close to our heart” (contrary to mostly extrinsically regulated goals). More effort leads to progress and a higher likelihood of goal attainment. And in turn, reaching goals makes us happy. But that´s not the end of the story: When we choose to pursue self-concordant goals, the act of moving forward is satisfying in itself. Why is that the case? The theory posits that pursuing self-concordant goals is associated with satisfying three basic psychological needs: The needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

  • Competence: We desperately want to feel competent, at least in those areas of life that are of interest to us. Think of a small child that has just learned a new skill. Typically, it will use this capability over and over again – just for the fun of it.
  • Autonomy: We desperately want to feel in control of our lives, and being able to make our own decisions. Think of a small child that discovers it´s free will and enjoys to do so. The “Terrible Twos” are something parents should be proud of – even though it´s probably difficult to enjoy at that time.
  • Relatedness: We desperately want to feel close to other people (that are important in our lives), we want to feel accepted, and at best: loved. Think of a small child that seeks the comfort of his parents after some time of absence.

Basic Psychological NeedsAnd while I have been talking of small children to make a point: those needs are active in all of us to a varying degree. And it does not stop until the end of this life. Ask yourself:

Do I foster an environment that caters to the fulfillment of these needs with regards to the people I´m involved with?

Here´s some research:

So, these are the answers to the questions from the second paragraph of this article:

  • We experience lack of motivation and failure of self-regulation when we pursue goals that aren´t close enough to our true selves. We may get by for some time clinging to external rewards – but that´s never the “real McKoy
  • We do not cherish our victories when the goals we´ve pursued were never our own in the first place. In that case, “getting there” doesn´t feel sweet and rewarding, but rather stale and phony.

You can learn a lot about that last point from the final chapter of my book – which unfortunately is still only available in German…

*The circular image of SDT has been adapted from a diagram in the aforementioned article on SDT and coaching. An overview of  hundreds (literally…) of studies can be found here. Enjoy!

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.