Have you made any New Year resolutions this year, or given up making them? You are not alone! Recent statistics show that whilst over a third of people in the UK make New Year’s resolutions (most commonly losing weight, getting fitter and eating more healthily), 63% fail to keep them and 43% give up before the end of January. Griffiths (2016) reports less than 10% lasting more than a few months, suggesting that false hope syndrome (unrealistic expectations and underestimating the ease, time and consequences of behavioural change) may be to blame.
Are you fed up with ‘experts’ telling you what you are doing wrong and how to fix it?
Whilst expert advice is extremely useful (set realistic goals, just choose one thing to change) and often based on established or ground-breaking new research, studies can be contradictory and confusing, especially when the evidence turns out to be biased or wrong. This makes it hard to know what to do to for the best health, hence consulting experts to tell us what to do. But what if we could do things differently and enable our struggling health service to function better too?
Different approaches to healthcare
Conventional medicine adopts a predominantly reductionist approach that ‘cures’ at physiological level with drugs or surgery, and views eating less and exercising more as the main fix for so-called lifestyle diseases. Psychiatrists and psychologists ‘fix’ mental health problems, recommending drugs such as anti-depressants to correct physiological imbalances and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can be difficult to access and can be expensive to fund privately.
Healthcare is a highly emotive and complex arena administered by and for people with very different perspectives, needs, resources and expectations, and the one-size-fits-all approach isn’t working. Viewing diseases like obesity as solely down to calories – people eating too many and not burning enough – is outdated, with the majority of people who lose weight regaining it and sometimes more. The low fat diet led to a whole food industry in processed, nutritionally void foods deficient in essential fats and high in sugar and artificial additives. Low sugar foods where sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners are now thought to hinder rather than help weight loss.
Holistic medicine looks at the whole person not just the disease and employs a variety of different tools such as aromatherapy oils, herbs, homeopathic remedies and energy work. Whilst many people choose complementary therapies, they do not easily fit into traditional research methods and philosophy, so lack scientific backing and can attract criticism from traditionalists and sceptics.
The blame game
Blaming obese patients has led to a weight-bias in health care that can discourage them from seeking further help. Blaming the food industry, advertisers or a lack of clear information / time / funds can divert attention away from taking personal responsibility for lifestyle choices: even telling people they should take personal responsibility can be used as a form of blame although personally I view it as being in-charge of my own health.
Syed (2015) describes this circular firing squad – everyone blaming someone else – as limiting behavioural change and learning from past mistakes. But perhaps most destructive is self-blame, beating yourself for not being a size 0 (or even a size 12), and failing to achieve often unrealistic goals so may be a good place to focus more positive strategies.
We need to adopt a more holistic, less blame-laden approach that builds psychological resources and encourages individuals to reclaim their personal power to make positive behavioural change.
Building positive, personal, physical and psychological resources
Perhaps the key to achieving a healthier lifestyle is through changing our thinking, encouraging a growth mindset (not fixed) and building self-esteem – which has been linked to nutrition and wellbeing – rather than focussing on diet and exercise alone.
So could Positive Psychology provide a more positive way to start the New Year that doesn’t mean you ending up feeling like a failure (again) before January is even out?
Positive psychology is a ‘strengths-based’ rather than deficit/deprivation model that offers a more holistic, individualised approach to health and wellbeing: Building-what’s-strong-not-fixing-what’s-wrong,’
Building our personal resources may equip us to better manage our own health and wellbeing.
The following interventions may help:
· Character strengths development – building specific skills such as self-regulation, perseverance and zest to support behaviour change (to discover your strengths go to: www.characterstrengths.org.uk )
· Increasing positive emotions such as optimism, hope and self-compassion (e.g. writing a gratitude journal, loving-kindness meditation). Doing what you love and provides a sense of meaning and purpose and is aligned with your values.
· What Works Well: Reinstating practices that have worked for you before (e.g. 5:2 diet; playing tennis, mindfulness practice)
· Learn a new skill such as dancing which can also increase social resources through shared interests.
I see positive psychology as a potential ‘bridge’ between conventional and complementary medicine. By adopting a more holistic perspective, focussing on the strengths of different approaches, learning from our mistakes and ensuring that research is both balance and ethical, we could create a better healthcare system that empowers individuals to take personal responsibility for their health in a way that suits their unique character strengths, values and circumstances.
The Guardian (2016). How long do people keep their New Year’s resolutions? Retrieved 5 January, 2016, from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/dec/31/how-long-do-people-keep-their-new-year-resolutions
Positive Psychology Program. (2016). How to improve well-being holistically: Introducing positive nutrition. Retrieved 4th January, 2017 from: http://positivepsychologyprogram.com/positive-nutrition/
Syed, M. (2015). Black Box thinking: The surprising truth about success (and why some people never learn from their mistakes. Kindle edition. London: John Murray (publishers).
About the author: Maggie Bevington worked in both conventional and holistic medicine before achieving an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP 2014). She now delivers Upward Spirals workshops: a unique, integrative, research-based approach to health and wellbeing – combining Positive Psychology, mindfulness training, nutrition, exercise and sleep – for individuals, groups and organisations upwardspirals.org.uk