I bet Walter Mischel, inventor of the (in)famous Marshmallow Test, would heartily agree. And Roy Baumeister problably would also give a slight nod of approval…
If you are like most people, willpower and self-regulation may not exactly be among your top strengths. E.g., for most of us, self-regulation is located pretty close to the bottom of the list when filling in the VIA questionnaire on 24 character strengths – which is based on Seligman´s and Peterson´s book Character Strengths and Virtues.
But then, breaking or making habits is one of the most important tasks when trying to succeed at a personal change project. So lo and behold! There´s help on the way. In earlier days, people would tie a knot in their handkerchiefs to help them remember things. These days, people don´t use handkerchiefs that much – but most of us do have a smartphone (or two…). And of course, there´s lots of apps around that strive on the fact that our spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
On New Year´s Eve, I´ve decided I´d like to become a “nicer” person this year. It´s not that I´m an asshole right now – I just thought I could put a little extra effort in it. Probably a “side effect” of being in the MAPP program…
OK. The Good Habit Maker is a nice little (free) app that does only one thing: at pre-selected intervals over the day, it’ll push one sentence to your smartphone´s screen, e.g. your personal change mantra. Helps a lot to bring your mind back to what you want to achieve during busy schedules.
The app Balanced is a little more refined, it´s a sort of task manager. You can enter specific tasks that you want to accomplish, and the quantities/intervals you intend to fulfill (e.g., “watch a TED talk once a week”). The app will then continuously remind you to complete those tasks until they are done. It also keeps track of you levels of completion and timeliness. There´s a demo version that is limited to a small number of tasks – the full version comes at $ 2.99.
And finally, the Grid Diary: as the name suggests, it´s a nice and clean diary app. The useful twist: you can pre-select (or enter your own…) specific questions. So instead of having to think about what to write each and every evening, the app will make you respond to the prompts that you specifically chose to be given. By way of example, I use it as a gratitude journal, which is one of the pre-eminent interventions in Positive Psychology. It´s free but offers some in-app purchases.
Enjoy! Keep it going! And for some extra energy, power up your Sisu!
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…
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.
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.
The fourth day of MAPP immersion week was again crammed with extraordinary lectures by extraordinary lecturers. The morning belonged to Roy Baumeister, one of the most highly acclaimed social psychologist in the world. He has conducted studies on a multitude of phenomena over the years, but may be known best for his research on willpower and self-control, carrying out experiments something along the line of this: He will put people in a room and have them sit at a table. On the table, there´s a plate full of tasty chocolate cookies; and another one with something to eat that is not attractive at all. People are told to wait for a couple of minutes. In addition, half of them are told not to touch the cookies – while it is totally o.k. to eat the other stuff.
Afterwards, the participants are lead into another room where they get a specific task, e.g. solving unsolvable anagrams. It is then measured how long the they will try to solve the anagrams before giving up. It turns out that people who were not allowed to touch the cookies on average quit a lot earlier. Baumeister calls this phenomenon ego depletion. He argues that willpower is a limited resource that is bound to fatigue similar to a muscle. This may be relevant especially to all those people trying to run multiple “personal change efforts” at a time. It seems more advisable to take if easy, one step at a time.*
Baumeister also gave a lecture on why humans as rational human beings have basically no other choice but to believe in free will; and another very provocative and mind-boggling one the evolutionary difference between men and women – and the consequences of those differences on our current society. I´m not going to elaborate on these topics here.
In the afternoon, Paul Bloom from Yale University took the stage. Among Paul´s manifold interest is the notion of human pleasure and basically, why we like things – and which attributes of an object increase or decrease our perceived utility. E.g., he will ask you what you would pay for a sweater that has been worn by George Clooney.
Turns out that the average American is willing to pay about 130-140$ for a sweater that has been worn by Gorgeous George and still contains his gorgeous sweat (meaning: it hasn´t been washed afterwards). When the thought experiment is extended to the notion that the sweater has been washed, the perceived price level drops considerably. Bloom argues that act of washing alters (in this case: spoils) the sweater´s perceived essence. Here, essence means the sum of the many intangible features of an object: the way it was produced, it´s history before getting to us etc. This also explains how a standard urinal suddenly can become a piece of very expensive art.
Probably doesn’t work with your sweat though – just in case…
* It seems especially unwise to undertake a change effort while dieting at the same time. Baumeister and colleagues also show that willpower may depend on a sufficient level of blood sugar – where low levels lead to ego depletion.