Does it matter whether we can identify the underlying mechanisms by which a positive intervention appears to work? Well, yes and no. In the short term it may be enough that something works. But if we want to repeat an outcome, then it is important to know why an intervention was successful.
Positive Interventions and Coaching Clients
Seligman and colleagues found that the Three Blessings Exercise, the Gratitude Visit, and Identifying and Using your Signature Strengths in a New Way each had positive and lasting effects. But many people are only convinced by their own personal research, no matter how well-regarded the scientists or promising their approach. Many teenagers fall into this category. Ones I see as an educational management coach often have multiple learning and emotional issues and reject the help of many well-meaning teachers, counselors and family members. They are often experts themselves: at learned helplessness and manipulation. They need positive interventions, but you can’t exactly tell them that you know some great ones to try. What can you do with clients who are resistant to the kinds of change they really do need?
Some Mechanisms of Positive Psychology
Some of my teen clients needed the outcome an intervention like the Three Blessings could deliver, but it would need some tweaking. I began by asking them to tell me something good. At first I did all of the writing, noting their observations on the appropriate day in their assignment books, under the heading “Something Good.” For the first few sessions, something good was about avoiding responsibility. “There was a fire drill.” “The bus was late.”A few sessions later I got to add two questions to the prompt. I now asked for them to give me three answers. What happened? What was good about it? Why did it happen? The first few responses were variations on a theme: “The bus was late so I missed English. It was good because my essay was not finished. It happened because I needed an extra day.” Within a month, though, the students were hooked on writing their own lists, volunteering the answers each day. Eventually they included things like “My friend came over after school. It was good because we played my new video game. It happened because I got my homework done right away.”
What was underlying the interventions success? According to Lyubomirsky and colleagues, about 50% of happiness is hereditary, but only about 10% of our happiness is the result of circumstances, the category where one can place random events like having substitute teachers who cannot do math, fire drills that interrupt the history test, and late bus drivers who spare one from turning in the first period essay. Kids who have school struggles, however, often count on these random events to help get them through the day. Since about 40% of our happiness can be affected by intentional activities, setting goals, making choices, and developing self-regulation are important happiness skills. So does this mean that good things in your life are not all random? Well, as a matter of fact, yes!
Pathways and Agency
The late Rick Snyder talked about creating hope through pathways and agency. He defined hope as “a thinking process in which the person clearly conceptualizes goals, but also perceives that s/he can produce the pathways to these goals (called pathways thinking) and can initiate and sustain movement along those selected pathways (called agency thinking).” While hope theory has an emphasis on conceptualizing, the initial change for the clients happened without their conscious goal-setting or planning. However, the results were magnified once they realized that their own behaviors (getting homework done) were actually causing good things to happen (having friends over).
Albert Bandura showed us that self-efficacy is required in order for a person to stay focused on a task in the midst of perceived setbacks. People who lack self-efficacy are less resilient and may not see themselves as having the ability to effect the changes that would result in success. People who develop self-efficacy are more likely to attribute their lack of success to insufficient or misguided effort. They are more likely to continue to set and reset goals and to believe that they can overcome adversity. The students became more self-efficacious, both socially and academically. Regarding resilience, see Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism (Great synopsis here by Dave Shearon).
Baumeister’s research suggests that self-regulation, choice, and decision making in one area have positive effects in other areas, too. Muscles get stronger with use, and so does our ability to self-regulate. In the beginning, I was setting lots of the goals and doing a significant amount of the planning. The clients had to answer three questions and do their school work. Eventually, they wrote the three answers each day. Once this became a habit, the students were more self-regulated enough to set simple goals and connect their behaviors to a desired outcome. They also noticed that the outcomes for random events produced only a short-term gain.
Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s “Self-determination Theory” identifies three innate psychological needs–competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are met, our self-motivation and emotional well-being increase. When they are not, motivation and emotional health suffer. At the beginning, the clients were somewhere between being not motivated to change to perhaps being externally motivated. Compliance may have been the result of parental requirements, grades, or coach’s requests. The coaching goal of helping the students to become more independent, more self-regulated and more engaged in their work required making a direct connection between causality (their own behaviors) and positive outcomes. Improvements in relatedness likely occurred as a result of improved school performance which benefited relationships with teachers and parents.
Chances are that many mechanisms were at work for the students. Unpacking these is what Positive Psychology researchers are doing. Creatively repackaging them is what coaches often do. In coaching we may take an empirically validated intervention and change things about it such as the prompts or the structure. Of course, then it is not really the same intervention. But when we take an intervention and customize it for a particular person because we understand some of the underlying mechanisms at work, we are creating “applied” (as opposed to “theoretical”) interventions. This is the beauty of Applied Positive Psychology as it is taught at MAPP. You will find numerous examples of this in the articles of various authors right here at the Positive Psychology Daily News.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84<2), 191-215.
Baumeister, R., Gaillot, M., DeWall, N. & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1802.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
Kaufman, S. B. (2011). Hope Theory: The will and ways to get there. Psychology Today. (Added later)
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Delightful group of teens – Two Boys shown here – Beach Scenes at Morro Bay, CA courtesy of MikeBaird