Evolutionary Psycho-Neurophysiology and Positive Psychology

Evolutionary Psycho-Neurophysiology and Positive Psychology

Evolutionary Psycho-Neurophysiology and Positive Psychology: How our evolved brain can impact wellbeing. I am not a neuropsychologist. However, as a clinical and coaching psychologist, I share a number of insights with clients on the way the evolved brain can impact wellbeing. These can be extremely helpful in normalising the challenges we face in everyday life, understanding how problems with mental health can arise and providing routes to address them. In this blog I highlight the key issues as I see them, noting that neuroscience is really complex, we don’t have the full picture yet and what is presented here is a huge simplification intended to be helpful but “held lightly”. I draw on the work of Paul Gilbert (2014), Ryan and Deci (2000) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The legacy of evolution As humans evolved, a number of characteristics became embedded in the way our brain and body worked because these made it more likely that the individual would survive and reproduce. These characteristics were relevant to the context of man in a hunter-gatherer, survival based world. They persist as part of our biological inheritance because change at this level takes a long time to happen so there is a significant lag. Indeed our context in modern society changes so fast I wonder if our biology will ever catch up! The point is that some of the design adaptations of the human brain and body don’t work as well in the 21st century as the environment they were developed to work in. Plus some of our “newer” human abilities such as verbal behaviour and higher level cognitive functioning can...
Positive Psychology, Control and Wellbeing

Positive Psychology, Control and Wellbeing

Introduction In this blog I look at the role of control in our wellbeing and talk about my model of the things we can control with a practical example of how this might be used to support mental health. Is control good for us? Most of us like to feel in control. It helps us feel safe and ordered. Ryan and Deci (2000) highlight autonomy as a key psychological need (along with competence and relatedness, see my previous blog on Self Determination Theory for more detail). The fulfilment of this need for autonomy is associated with good mental health and improved motivation, whereas when it is blocked, motivation and wellbeing decrease. Autonomy involves the idea that we are in control of our actions, we are free from pressure from others and we have the ability to make our own choices. When we have this sense of this control, we feel authentic which boosts eudaimonic wellbeing. Many types of psychopathology stem from people seeking control in maladaptive ways when it is blocked in important areas of their lives. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders can be extreme examples of this. How much control do we really have? So a sense of autonomy is good for us. But how realistic is this in everyday life? Often external circumstances can’t easily be changed and we certainly can’t control other people’s attitudes and behaviour, although we can sometimes influence them by how we act. Actually even our own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are also not as much under our control as we might like to think. For example, if I tell...
What is Positive Psychology Coaching?

What is Positive Psychology Coaching?

Introduction: In this blog I talk about one way in which Positive Psychology (PP) Coaching can be applied to help people live flourishing lives. I aim to explain what this might involve and when it might be helpful. An applied science PP has always been an applied science aimed at providing evidence-based practical approaches to help improve wellbeing for individuals, organisations and societies. Perhaps the most well-known application is through Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs). These are “self-help” type packages aimed at individuals without mental illness which; “enhance well-being through pathways consistent with positive psychology theory” (Carr et al. 2023 p1). This includes key PPIs such as promoting gratitude in various forms, using your strengths, pursuing intrinsically motivated goals and cultivating savouring, mindfulness, optimism, kindness and forgiveness to name a selection! There is an inevitable debate about exactly which interventions should be included in this definition and the veracity of the evidence base (Boiler et al. 2013, Carr et al, 2021, Carr et al. 2023, White et al. 2019). However, there appears to be some consensus that many PPIs show evidence of having a small to medium positive effect on well-being indicators and a reduction in markers of mental ill health and stress and that these improvements are maintained over time (Carr et al. 2023). What is not really clear is; who is most helped, by which interventions, under what conditions and context, and through what mechanisms. We know that “person-activity fit” or finding the right intervention for the individual and addressing internal and external barriers to implementation, is important. We also know that sustaining the effects of interventions through...
Why Kindness Counts

Why Kindness Counts

A good piece of news from the 2023 World Happiness Report is that rates of kindness are increasing. This was judged by more people having helped a stranger, donated money or goods or taken part in volunteering compared to data from previous years. In this blog I take a look at the concept of kindness in Positive Psychology. I review how it is conceptualised, what the impacts and functions of it are seen to be and why it is important.   Can we define kind? Although kindness is valued across cultures and religious traditions it is not that easy to define. It is considered a strength in the VIA taxonomy, part of the virtue of humanity and the term is often used interchangeably with that of altruism or prosociality. A kind act is considered to be one that has a perceived benefit for the receiver of the act usually coupled with a perceived cost for the actor. Both greater benefits and greater costs tend to mean acts are rated as “kinder”. Kindness as a trait or characteristic is seen as the tendency to frequently and reliably perform kind acts. As you can see there is a lot of potential interpretation going on in these definitions. How are costs and benefits evaluated and by whom? How can you really know the intention of the actor and does this matter? How often constitutes frequently/reliably? Does context and culture make a difference? At an individual level kindness could be considered as performing acts intended to benefit others, but we all know how our good intentions can sometimes backfire. Are these acts kind...
Positive Psychology – Moving Forward

Positive Psychology – Moving Forward

Following on from my colleague Lisa Jones’ blog (January 2023), I want to consider further the recent paper by Carol Ryff (2022) “Positive Psychology: Looking back and looking forward.” From its inception, PP was intended to redress the historical focus on the negative and dysfunctional in psychology research and practice and seek what makes life vibrant and full. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) suggested that the movement, if successful, could become redundant and be subsumed into “psychology as usual”. Has that happened? Is PP still needed and if so what is its role, function and direction within the wider field?   The waves of PP The history of PP is often described in a number of “waves”. The first wave of PP focussed heavily on boosting the positive and was criticised for promoting “toxic positivity”. This largely was due to a misunderstanding of the true nature of PP (in my opinion), but on the plus side a wider focus on “what makes a good life” did seem to gain traction in research. The potential “Pollyanna” nature of first-wave PP was addressed with the development of the second wave or PP 2.0. (Ivtzan et al. 2016, Wong 2011). This considered the dialectics of life and reconnected PP with its neglected humanistic and existential roots. The focus was on a balance of positive and negative experiences in context and the complex interplay of all the shades of grey in between black and white which reflect the reality of human experience. The role of meaning, wisdom, purpose, values and growth as part of the “good” life came to the fore alongside strengths, positive...
Climate Anxiety and Positive Psychology

Climate Anxiety and Positive Psychology

Introduction Most of us will have seen the coverage of the COP 27 summit on climate change in November 2022. Our news feeds are full of reports of extreme weather events and the impact they are having on the planet, nature and people. This crisis threatens the whole of humanity and at times is overwhelming. As awareness of the seriousness of the problem the planet is facing permeates our consciousness, climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is a rising problem affecting the mental health of many people (Frumkin 2022). I will outline the ways in which this is both similar and different to other types of anxiety and discuss PP interventions that might be helpful in ameliorating the impact.   Climate anxiety Anxiety is a normal emotion experienced in the face of challenge and uncertain outcomes. Indeed we need a certain amount of anxiety to perform at our best. The word is also used to refer to aspects of the clinical state of mental illness which can result when our normal threat response processes go wrong. In evolutionary terms, when we faced a physical threat, such as being eaten by a predator, those whose bodies responded with an effective “flight or fight” (FF) response were more likely to survive and reproduce. So this process became embedded in human neurophysiological functioning through natural selection. The FF response sends blood to the arms and legs and away from the gut, increases heart and respiration rates and floods you with adrenaline to prepare you to run/ fight. In modern life, most of the threats we face are not physical but social, and our cognitive...