Positive Psychology and Change

The rationale of Positive Psychology (PP) in discerning the factors which promote wellbeing, flourishing and meaning in life, implies a call to change. Even positive and desired change can be problematic. The extent to which change is possible has been a central consideration of the study of personality and the focus of diverse forms of therapy. The question of nature Vs nurture in influencing behaviour, emotions and cognitions tends to be conceptualised as one of complex interactions. It is now known that not only can genes influence our interaction with the environment but contextual factors can also facilitate or inhibit the expression of genes. Against this background both continuity and evolution of the individual psyche are shaped throughout life.

Living with an Evolved Brain

As Gilbert (2009) highlights, we live in a modern world with a brain that evolved to help our species survive in very different circumstances to those of today. Thus our unconscious mental processes can undermine our wellbeing. Our brain evolved to deal with an environment of scarcity, not the plethora of choice facing us in current Western society. Thus, our tendency to strive for more and our sensitivity to threat which enabled us to become the dominant species on the planet, leave us vulnerable to difficulty in modulating our needs and desires in the face of plenty. This is compounded by our individualistic culture with it’s inherently competitive mentality. Too often we are trapped by the modern plagues of obesity, addiction and the hedonic treadmill which causes us to always strive for the next big thing. We are not good at being content but can become stuck in behaviours of excess, which people often want to change but feel unable to do so.

The Stages and Processes of Change.

So, in a world where we are constantly called to reduce maladaptive behaviours and enhance well-being oriented behaviours, how do we conceive of and foster intentional change, and what are the difficulties associated with this?

Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente (1994) studied people who had successfully changed problem behaviours or adopted positive behaviours without intervention, and later looked at change within therapy. They also examined the processes involved in diverse types of therapy and proposed a model of intentional behaviour change, where change is seen as occurring over time in ordered stages. Core change processes, used to a greater or lesser extent in all types of therapy, are applied differentially across the stages of change to effect progress. Consequently, the correct processes need to be matched to the stage of change of the individual.

In the first stage, Precontemplation, the person often does not acknowledge the need for change. Insight oriented change processes are needed to help the person overcome defences, experience the associated emotions and enable understanding of the advantages of change. This leads to a contemplation phase where the person is considering change and understands the advantages of change but the difficulties associated with a new lifestyle become apparent and the pros and cons are weighed. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the procrastination common to this phase of change. For the individual to progress the decisional balance needs to shift so that the pros for change increase twice as much as the cons decrease leading to the preparation phase. Here the focus tends to change to behavioural strategies and commitment to a detailed plan of action. This, coupled with adequate belief in one’s ability to carry out the plan (self efficacy), allow action to take place. This is where the noticeable behavioural changes occur. This action phase is what people typically think of as “change” and is where most intervention programmes are aimed. However, rushing to action without going through the earlier stages of change so that one is truly prepared to be different, can be counterproductive and lead to failure reinforcing a view that change is impossible and undermining self esteem and self confidence. This is one reason many “action” interventions such as dieting, exercise and anti-smoking campaigns have limited success rates.

Following the action phase, there is an important maintenance stage of Change, where a range of strategies need to be employed to help prevent relapse. This important process is again often neglected, leading to relapse (and for example regaining weight lost). In fact, this process of change is seen as a spiral pattern where people often relapse back to an earlier stage in the cycle several times before enduring change occurs and learning from relapse is an important part of the process.

This model of change is not without its critics. It has been the dominant model used in addiction recovery in recent years but is purported to be relevant to the adoption of positive behaviours too.

How Does This Relate To Positive Psychology?

So is this conceptualisation of change helpful within PP? I believe it is a useful model for helping people understand that change is a complex process and that with any change there are both advantages and disadvantages. True change is not just about action. Indeed It is easy to rush into the next “in thing” without anticipating the consequences or understanding that setbacks are part of the process. The evolution of second wave PP highlights that the path to wellbeing is not all about the positive but needs to address balancing dialectical emotions adaptive, with the acknowledgment that life is often painful and our biology doesn’t always help us.

PP practitioners need to be aware of these issues and the ethics of offering interventions which may have unforeseen consequences. Learning to meditate could expose one to difficult personal insights and emotions. Practicing gratitude could make us see our moaning friends differently. Pursuing self compassion could highlight all the times when it has been absent and adopting a healthy lifestyle might change your social circle or threaten close relationships. We all have psychological defences of one sort or another and they are usually there for a reason, whether it is a “good” one or not. Any change can influence these defences and in offering PP approaches we need to be mindful of this and use nuance and careful consideration in their application.

Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. U.K.: Constable.

Prochaska, J.O., Norcross, J.C. & DiClemente, C.C. (1994). Changing For Good: A revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward. New York; HarperCollins.

About the Author: Sarah Monk 


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