I recently came across an article titled “More than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes” by Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth, which argues that the positive outcomes associated with self-control have more to do with habits for self-regulation, than with in-the-moment exercise of willpower.
Self-control is defined by APA as the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations for long-term gains. Thus the main challenge while exercising self-control is how to take care of inevitable temptations that happen to cross our path. One approach is to build our willpower or in-the-moment inhibitory self-control that is able to overrule the impulses that drive us to engage with the temptation. This reliance on willpower will typically deplete our cognitive resources each time we use this willpower and leave us drained or ego-depleted and less able to resist temptations in the near term.
The other approach is to structure your day and activities in such a way as to minimize the temptations that you are exposed to. There is a five step process that is recommended to self-regulate. Start with selecting the situation. If you want to study , study in the library where distractions are likely to be minimal. The next is situation modification. If you cant study in library and have to study in living room, turn off the TV and put your remote away to minimize distractions. The next step is selective attention, where if you have TV turned on (due to n number of reasons) and still want to study you selectively attend to your textbook/ study notes and do not attend to the TV noise in the background. If the earlier three stages are not available, or you don’t have an opportunity to use them then comes cognitive re-framing; maybe you can’t turn off the TV and are not able to resist watching it over say studying for math which seems hard and boring. You can re-frame studying as preparing for a better future, which hopefully inspires you; and watching TV as wasting time. The last step in this framework is to rely on brute-force willpower to turn off the TV and go back to studying. This last recourse of using willpower is to be exercised and relied on , only if all else (the earlier steps ) fail.
Thus, its evident that self-regulation is best implemented by having good habits of selecting and modifying situations to minimize temptations etc. Also, its better to use your willpower to create healthy habits like exercising everyday and letting the subconscious take care of executing that on auto-pilot, once the habit has been formed, than to rely on conscious inhibitory self-control.
From this, I propose the following structure for self control:
- The main challenge is resisting temptations
- One way to do so is by creating habits that minimize exposure to temptations or that test oneself.
- Another way to do so is to rely on willpower or brute force in-the-moment inhibitory self-control to resist temptations.
There is now some research available that shows that the self-report self-control we measure, and which is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes (see PDF), primarily measures the habit or auto-pilot self-control rather than the state self-control. The in-the-moment or state self-control is not such a good predictor of future positive outcomes.
Now lets think for a moment about a related but different concept, Grit, which is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals; and which again has been shown to be a predictor of all sorts of good outcomes.
By analogy I have come up with the following structure for Grit:
- The main challenge is persevering despite obstacles/ failures
- One way to do so is by minimizing possibility of failure by careful planning (orderliness) and habits to circumvent obstacles or bulldoze through then by working hard (industriousness). Together this can be construed as the trait Conscientiousness.
- Another way to do so is to rely on ordinary magic of in-the-moment resilience to bounce back from failures and getting up and restarting after colliding with an obstacle.
By analogy, I believe that the self-report Grit that is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes will correlate more with trait contentiousness rather than the in-the-moment ability to be resilient. And it follows that it is better to create habits of orderliness and industriousness rather than relying on our ability to bounce back and get up after falling.
I should perhaps stop here, but I can also see parallels with what I think is the reverse of having Self-control. Too much not having self-control, or being impulse driven may be associated with the psychological disorders clubbed under addiction.
There has now been a lot of research showing that addiction is not so much about dependence on substances or biologically based but due to lack of satisfying interpersonal and social relationships.
With that in mind, and extending the analogy, here is what I propose to be the structural quality of all types of addiction, whether related to substance abuse or behavioral (internet etc) in nature:
- The main challenge to remaining addicted is availability of satisfying relationships.
- One way to to remain addicted is habitually prioritizing one activity/ substance to the exclusion of others (salience), so that the joy from other activities like satisfying relationships is not experienced at all.
- Another way to remain addicted is to get so much in-the-moment high form indulging in the activity/ using the substance, that it overrules any comparisons with the satisfaction derived from relationships.
If I had to go on a limb, I would say that the former system which relies on habits or prioritizing a particular activity over others is related to the ‘wanting’ system , while the latter system which is related to experiencing in the moment highs is related to the ‘liking’ system. And we all know that the ‘wanting’ system is more powerful than the ‘liking’ system. So most likely addiction is maintained by the former system where a habitual pattern of (mis) use has been formed.
So what are the takeaways? Build good habits and do not rely on in-the-moment strengths or capabilities to tide you over in times of crises. And measures of these good habits are what would drive success and lead to all sorts of positive outcomes.
The Human existence is fraught with many conundrums and dilemmas, the chief among them being how to live a good life and how to resolve the various contradictions in the service of that goal.
To start with, I noted in an earlier post that even infants are able to reason about the world and themselves and others using four cognitive frameworks: they see self and others as animals (biological reasoning system), as agents (psychological reasoning system) , as separated individuals (sociomoral reasoning system) and finally as impartial observers obeying physical laws(physical reasoning system). We as humans are all of these- both animals and individuals; agents and observers.
We also face significant challenges when thinking of ourselves in these domains; thinking of us as mere animals that will die one day brings existential dread of death and wants us to transcend that by asserting or cultural identities (see more here).
- Awareness: As an observer our primary role is to become aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of the world. Aware of our separateness from the world and the need to transcend that and become aware of us being a part of the world. There is a trade-off between being aware of one as separate and being aware of one as a part of the world. Mysticism or spirituality where one merges with the world is one thing that enters at this level.
- Being: As an animal our primary role is to just be…for as long as possible. Being authentic and true to our self is a prime motivator here as is the desire to transcend death and become a part of cultural milieu by playing adequately the role assigned to us by our culture. There is a dynamic tension between juts being ‘ourselves’ and fitting in to cultural expectations of norms and roles to be a good cultural animal. Culture enters the equation at this level.
- Choice: As an agent our primary role is to exercise choice. Being free to make choice is a keen motivator but so is the need to commit ourselves to certain values, certain moral principles that can justify our choices. Having certain moral values and principles means that we precommit to certain ways of acting and thus are not entirely free to make choices. There is a dynamic tension between freedom of choice and commitment to moral principles. Morality enters the equation in this stage.
- Doing: As an individual our primary role is to interact with others- to do somethings for or with others. Being proactive and self-propelled is a great motivator and we proactively interact with others for fulfilling our needs, but the awareness that they are sentient beings just like us means we start factoring in their needs and start responding and acting contingently. There is a dynamic tension between autonomous action by us and reciprocal action demanded by quid pro quo interactions. Our need to have needs to be balanced with our need to help and connect. Sociability enters the equation.
There is also tensions and interplay between these different functions: Being and Doing are sometimes contrasted and so is Choice and Awareness. Overall I find the above conceptualization very interesting and informing.
While we can never hope to resolve the human conundrums perfectly, being aware of them ids a first step towards successful resolution.
Review articles are themselves supposed to be a summary of a field of inquiry, so it appeared queer summarizing a review article; but here I go. This post summarizes a 2005 review article appearing in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. As it is more than a decade since the publication of this article by Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Tracy Steen, I think it is appropriate to see how far the field has come since then and what still remains to be done.
- Positive psychology (PP), in this article, is seen through the triple lens of focusing on subjective well-being or pleasure; flow, engagement, and strengths; and meaning in life. This is as contrasted with the traditional deficit focus of clinical psychology whereby one looks at diathesis (genetic vulnerability for disorders) and stress (environment acute events like death of a loved one and chronic conditions like poverty) to figure out causes of diseases and suffering. While not denying the importance of ‘fix-what’s-wrong’ , positive psychology takes a ‘build-what’s-strong’ approach.
- Antecedents of positive psychology can be seen in most earlier movements within psychology. For e.g., if one were to focus on Psychoanalysis, Freud’s pleasure principle, Adler’s ‘healthy’ strivings motivated by social interest and Fromm’s productive orientation, all relate to some aspects of the new positive psychology paradigm. However, Humanistic psychologists, like Rollo May are more closely and directly related to the positive psychology movement, with conditions for self-actualization (Maslow) or fully functioning person (Carl Roegrs) laying the groundwork for PP.
- Its usually insinuated that humanistic psychology was not empirical or evidence based, however research showing that people grow most when they live an authentic life aligned with their values; or the co-opting of Jahoda’s six processes that lead to mental health by Carol Ryff et al in their wells-substantiated measure of Psychological well-being suggests that humanistic psychology had enough teeth.
- PP tenet no. 1: positive states and emotions and factors are not merely the lack of or inverse of negative states or emotions or factors. Thus, mental health and mental illness are two separate though correlated entities. Reducing your anger will not make you automatically more loving and caring; getting out of depression will not necessarily make you flourishing and happy.
- The authors try to fit their new framework of the Pleasant life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful life into the earlier conceptualization of PP as consisting of a focus on positive states, traits and institutions. Please note that this framework has been subsequently extended to include the Accomplished life and the Connected (relationships) life in the newest PERMA model.
- In therapy, its important to note the buffers and resources a person has and measures of well-being can indicate the actual or potential positive functioning. They can also elucidate differential predictors. For e.g. positive satisfaction with life predicts less acting out in youth when stressed.
- Self-report measures like Satisfaction with Life scale, need to be conjunct with informant reports, experience sampling methods (ESM) etc to get a more cohesive picture. VIA survey can be used for identifying character strengths that can be useful in therapeutic context by providing therapists an insight into what strengths can be used for planning and executing interventions.
- Flow or engagement states can be identified using ESM and semi-structured interviews etc. However measuring the degree of flow is challenging to this day, I believe. However identifying the activities that lead to flow experiences may aid in therapy by making the client move towards more of such experiences.
- To discern how meaningful or purposeful one finds life, one can use narrative techniques like asking the client to treat his or her life as a book and give chapter titles, main characters and future possible plots to that life-as-book. Existential traditions do focus on meaning as a way to diagnose and treat and their marriage with PP leading to PP2.0 is the newest thing in town.
- PP makes sense in therapy as positive emotions or events undo the effects of negative emotions or events. No mention is made of the (in)famous 3:1 ratio (3 positive for each negative event or interaction) required for the same! Resilient people also typically experience more positive emotions, hence PP in clinical practice makes sense.
- Many therapists are already using PP stuff like instilling hope, courage, authenticity in clients and these are perhaps the non-specific factors that ensure that any therapy works better than placebo.
- Active PP interventions can also help in therapy. Some of the interventions reviewed were the early Fordyce’s ‘Act like happy people’ intervention, the ‘3 good things’ or gratitude journal based interventions (which have proven to be one of the most effective interventions), writing about intense positive experiences (which nobody talks about nowadays) , the random acts of kindness interventions, Gratitude visits, At your best write-ups, bibliotherapy and using strengths in a new way everyday. Results show that while most interventions lead to short term gains in happiness, (even placebo do), for long term gains, interventions that can become habits like counting 3 good things daily or deploying strengths in a new way daily, work better.
The promise of positive psychotherapy is still to be fulfilled, though progress is being made in that direction. If you are a therapist planning to include PP approaches in therapy or a mental health service user or caregiver, you probably should read a bit about this new filed. For others too, if the paper seemed exciting check it out here.
In that chapter, Mihaly claims that human brains are unique in lieu of their ability to give rise to self-reflective consciousness (I believe that many primates and some other animals may also have self-reflective consciousness, but that is tangential to our discussion here). This self-reflective consciousness in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects.
To begin with, the self-reflective consciousness gives rise to a sense of individuality– a sense that one is an individual separate from the nature/ environment. This sense of individuality leads to an anxiety about death. In Mihaly’s own words:
Selfishness and cruelty, which formerly existed mainly as tools for biological survival, now have become extended to protect the psychological needs of the self, for the metabrain cannot help but conclude that its own existence is the most precious thing in the world, and all other goals pale in importance compared to its preservation. The terror of nonexistence, the fear of death, has become one of the ruling motives of humans.
This fear and reality of death is one of the first and foremost existential concern. The second concern that one typically encounters in existential texts is the fear and reality of freedom or choices. Again in Mihaly’s words:
Paradoxically, self-reflection also ushers in the possibility of self-doubt. As humans realized that they were independent individuals with a short lifespan, the question of what choices would lead to a meaningful life became increasingly urgent.
The third reality and fear of isolation is also apparent from the dawning of self-reflective consciousness and a sense of individuality.
The realization of individuality brought about a sense of isolation and finitude, but it also gave the impression of autonomy and freedom.
For understanding the last existential reality and fear of meaninglessness, we need to understand how self-reflective consciousness makes us question the implicit meaning of living and makes us seek for external frames of meaning. For an (non self-reflective) animal, the question of whether life is worth living simply does not arise.
After all, if the spark of consciousness only lasts a few heartbeats in the cosmic darkness, is there really any point in hanging on to life, when so much of it involves suffering? To answer this question, our ancestors—freed and unmoored from the implicit meaning provided by biological existence—had to come up with credible reasons that life was indeed worth living. The myths, religions, and philosophies of every culture have been in large part directed toward answering that question.
With science and reductionist thinking eating up on any semblance of meaning we may derive from earlier systems like myth, religion etc its imperative to ground meaning in new secular and non-mystical terms.
I am sure when Mihaly was writing these paragraphs, existential thinking was not on top of his mind, but isn’t it great to see how even in early days existential thinking and concerns were coupled with a positive psychology focus and PP2.0 is not all that new!