Labelling unwanted behavior as a disorder has advantages and disadvantages. The obvious disadvantage is that it focuses on the problem rather than the solution. This violates the core premise of the positive world view: to focus on the behavior you want rather than the behavior you don’t want. How could positive psychology promote a shift from diagnosing “disorders” to helping people rewire unwanted behaviors?
This is hard to do in today’s culture because a person is quickly condemned as “insensitive” if they fail to honor the disorder label. In the name of “compassion,” we are expected to focus on the problem and not the solution. The myopic view of compassion is driven by the selfish need to avoid conflict, but that need is a practical necessity in today’s world. How could a future world be different?
Instead of teaching people about their “disorder,” we could teach people about their neuroplasticity. Today’s knowledge of neuroplasticity is in its infancy, of course, and unfortunate misconceptions abound. Excess optimism about neuroplasticity creates the illusion that bad habits can be undertaken lightly because they can always be undone. The reality is that it’s harder to rewire yourself than most people expect, and many fail to persist. But more people can successfully build a desired new pathway to replace an undesired old pathway if they’re explicitly taught.
For example, a person can be taught to define an alternative behavior and repeat it until they’ve wired it in. We can teach people that every brain learns from rewards, pain, and repetition. Your old neural pathways were built from the rewards, pain and repetition of your past. Your brain keeps using those pathways unless you build new ones. To do that you must structure the rewards and pain in your environment to make your new choice rewarding, and the repeat the new pattern without fail every day for 45 days. This is hard to do, but anyone can do it with help. This is the appropriate focus of help. Indeed, it’s the only help that “helps.”
Instead of such training, people often get a “diagnosis” and learn to see themselves as passive receivers of treatment instead of active builders of new pathways. They are taught about the symptoms of the disorder so they can teach others and get the compassion they deserve. They learn to ally with other sufferers, to advocate for their disorder, and to believe they are broken in a way that experts must fix. A new identity builds around the diagnosis instead of around the desired alternative behavior.
Disorders are now defined in a way that everyone on the planet could qualify if they could access services. You might think that’s a good thing since we can all benefit from therapeutic intervention. But the therapeutic perspective often seduces people into believing their brain can be managed by professionals instead of believing in their own brain-management skills. A spreading of this belief is not progress.
This could change in the future, and positive psychology could lead the way. Expectations about mental health can change if the positive psychology community participates in the public conversation about “disorders.”
About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers free resources to help train your mammal brain for more happy chemicals (InnerMammalInstitute.org).
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’