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.
Hope is one of the 24 character strengths as identified by VIA. Its also known as optimism, future-mindedness and future orientation. It is defined by VIA as ‘expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about.’
There are three variants of this strength, as found in the psychological literature:
(dispositional) Optimism is a general feeling that good things will happen to oneself. It’s a generalized expectancy about the future and is not tied to any specific task or goal in particular. It is a general feeling of confidence and is related to the outcome expectancy that energizes behavior while pursuing a challenge or solving a problem and results in persistence. Pessimists on the other hand are doubtful and hesitant in goal pursuit and this gets exacerbated in times of adversity. While optimists are confident of their ability to handle adversity one way or the other, pessimists tend to catastrophize.
Optimists are more likely to feel excitement and eagerness when confronted with adversity and have overall positive affect; while pessimists are more likely to feel negative emotions like guilt, despair, anger, anxiety and sadness when confronted with adversity.Optimists are confident in their ability to handle adversity and thus expend effort and energy in facing the adversity, while pessimists may indulge in wishful thinking – that getting distracted perhaps or closing their eyes – will make the adversity disappear and may stop expending effort.
Optimists are likely to use problem-focused coping (aimed at doing something about the stressor itself to blunt its impact) when in control; and use positive reframing, or accept the reality of situation, when not in control. Even in situations not under control, optimists use emotion focused coping (aimed at soothing distress) like seeing the silver lining in the cloud and learning from the bad situation. Pessimists are likely to use denial or distance themselves from the situation or use substance abuse as a means of escape. Optimists engage with the situations while pessimist try to avoid the situations/ stressors.
Optimism has many psychological health benefits too; for eg. it helps you fight postpartum depression, and leads to lowered distress in wide ranging health conditions from lowering of pre and postoperative coronary surgery distress, to less suffering from cancer, or less distress in a caregiver caring for a person with cancer.Pessimism or hopelessness, on the other hand, rather than depression, is a stronger predictor of suicide.
Optimism is also related to behaviors that lead to more health promoting behaviors and that reduce health risks. Optimists also have better physical health and immunity and even longevity. Optimists are more likeable and thus have better social circles and networks as they use a positive problem focused approach to relationships too.
Optimism is moderately inheritable (25%), especially given its association with inheritable traits like neuroticism and extraversion, and is thus prtly in your genes. Also, it has been suggested that optimism develops as a result of early childhood experiences be it a secure attachment or development of ‘basic trust’ as per Erikson’s stages. However, optimism can be developed. Cognitive behavioral therapies intend to do so by changing the underlying thought patterns.
And that brings us to optimistic explanatory styles. While dispositional optimism is all about expectancies for the future, optimistic explanatory style grounds those expectancies into how we habitually interpret past success and failures.
One has an optimistic explanatory style when one makes stable, personal and global attributions for good events and learns to make temporary and specific attributions for negative past experiences. Pessimistic explanatory style on the other hand is when one makes stable and global, personal attributions for negative past events and experiences. Optimists have a flexible explanatory style, while that of pessimists is more rigid.
I will do a separate post on learned optimism and CBT which is related to this concept of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles. bI will focus more on dispositional optimism and Hope.
Hope as per the framework used by Snyder has three components: the goals that are clearly conceptualized, important to self and direct one’s future orientation; agency or a belief in one’s ability to take the first step and reach the goals despite inevitable obstacles, and pathways or the ability to come up with alternate paths and strategies to achieve the goal, if obstacles are encountered.
Hopeful people have learning goals and are mastery oriented, while those low in hope have performance goals and have a helpless orientation. Having hope means that one can think of many alternate paths to achieve the goal and is thus focussed on success and having learning goals. High hope also entails much enthusiasm and energy while pursuing goals and leads to positive affectivity; while being low in hope correlates with negative affectivity characterized by worry, negative thoughts and dissatisfaction with self.
There is another conceptualization of hope especially in medical settings. Hope, as per Herth, has three components: The cognitive–temporal dimension taps into “the perception that the desired outcome is realistically probable,” whereas the affective–behavioral dimension refers to “a feeling of confidence with the initiation of plans” to achieve the desired goals. Affiliative–contextual dimension refers to the “recognition of the interconnectedness between self and others and between self and spirit”. As such, this dimension can also be thought of as an interpersonal connectedness and spiritual dimension. Essentially, it contains items related to perceived social support, perceived spiritual support, and a sense of meaning and belongingness. Thus the concept of hope can be elaborated to include a social/ spiritual dimension too.
Hope is measured using Adult hope Scale, Life Orientation test , Herth Hope scale etc. Hope/Optimism as measured by these scales has been found to correlate with important life outcomes.
Optimism and pessimism, or hope and hopelessness, are moderately correlated, but different constructs. Thus someone high in optimism may not necessarily be low in pessimism; more practically, the correlates of life outcomes due to high optimism may not be same as those for low pessimism. Optimism is more strongly related to extraversion and positive affect and pessimism is more strongly related to neuroticism and negative affect.
Hope is correlated with perceived competence, self-esteem and perceived purpose in life; low hope is also correlated with depression and anxiety. The low hope anxiety relationship is mediated by inability to learn from failure and the non realization of utility of efforts/ new strategies to achieve valued outocmes. High hope is also related to higher creativity and problem solving abilities thus leading to higher academic performance.
Hope is also social; high hope people are socially competent,enjoy getting to know others, getting to know their interests, and more frequently interact with others. Low-Hope people on the other hand ruminate, get frustrated and are aggressive in their goal pursuit and struggle interpersonally.
Hope builds resilience. The agency component of hope buffers against future depression / anxiety symptoms.
Hope and perseverance are closely related and many interventions increase both; hope is correlated to perseverance as well as bravery in individuals.
Some of the interventions that have found emperical validity and have resonted with me are :
- Best possible self
- One door closes, another door opens
- Hope letter
- WOOP exercise
Hope this was useful!
I have always wanted to write a book; however I am very irregular with even my blog posts and think that I lack the self-discipline to write regularly or write for a longer project. I want to test both these assumptions.
Moreover, I have been consciously moving away from theoretical stuff to more hands-on and applied issues. Writing a book typically appeared an intellectual pastime to me- where I could demonstrate my ostensibly expert/superior knowledge of a subject; lately however, I have started to veer more towards writing more of a book that is grounded in personal experience and uses theory as a guide to help other practitioners.
As you might be aware, I am deeply fascinated by strengths especially the VIA framework as developed by Peterson and Seligman. I am doing some work with school children around these strengths and hope to reach out to many more school children in this new year. While I apply the well tested interventions of positive psychology with these kids, I will also be experimenting with them myself and be on this collective strengths workout. I hope you join me on this journey.
Each fortnight I will be focusing on one of the 24 character strengths – reading books and articles related to that strength, digesting that and posting about that on my blogs- The Mouse Trap/ Flourish Mentoring; creating awareness about the strength on the social media; hopefully intervening with a larger group of school children around that strength, making that strength a focus of my life for the fortnight, making a collection of songs, movies, videos related to that strength and so on.
All this will also become rich material for a book that I will be writing in parallel, the book directed at positive psychology practitioners, especially people in school based settings who wish to work towards the socio-emotional development of children, but do not know where to start. If I am lucky enough to find a publisher, nothing like it; else I plan to release it myself (I still haven’t made a decision as to whether I will be releasing the book for free (and ebook) or it will be a very low priced paperback version).
If I manage to keep the average schedule of working on a strength per fortnight, then keeping aside 2 weeks of vacations too, I should have a book by the end of the year- however it will not be possible to have a useful book unless you all accompany me on this strengths workout. I would humbly request everyone to be generous with their time and suggestions- reading the posts and related material, thinking about the strength, experimenting with the interventions themselves and sharing their experiences with the world-at-large. Also dont forget to provide the moral support and encouragement.
For those of you who are new to the strengths framework, I strongly recommend that they take a free VIA adult/ youth survey be creating an account at viacharacter.org and reach out to me in case you need help with interpreting your free report. For starters focus on your top 5 strengths which are your signature strengths and try to see how you can enhance them even further and leverage them more in your daily life.
This VIA framework is quite a bit different from the Gallup’s Clifton Strengthsfinder 2.0 framework (please note that I am also a Gallup certified strengths coach) and both faremworks have their utilities, but for working with school children I am increasingly leaning towards VIA and will be focusing on that only for this project.
New year is a time for all round hope, so I have picked hope as the strength of the fortnight. More posts specifically on the topic of hope will follow. I truly hope that you are as excited about this project as I am and will joyfully accompany me on this strengths workout!