Optimal Functioning: How can we help people perform to the best of their abilities?
This boils down to effective goal achievement, and an over-riding research perspective of my lab concerns the interface of motivation with cognition and behaviour. The components of interest to me are: (1) Motivation (as defined through Self-Determination theory); (2) Individual differences in future-oriented thinking (e.g. strategic optimism vs defensive pessimism); (3) Behavioural and Cognitive habits, in particular stimulus-bound behaviours (behavioural triggers) and thinking (cognitive biases and habits), attributions, perceptions of control and responses to failure (sometimes called ‘resilience’).
Associated questions: are we consciously aware of the motives underlying our choices? In what way do motives make incentives salient? Are there multiple systems (e.g. dual-process models) in the brain that determine behavioural control? Generally I use cognitive-behavioural paradigms to address these questions and incorporate autonomic measures of arousal where appropriate. In the past I have also used fMRI to explore the neural systems and processes underlying motivation-cognition interactions.
With respect to dual-process theories of motivational control, it has been argued that parallel implicit and explicit systems compete for behavioural control. Certainly, in the motive literature, it has been argued that implicit motive strength accounts for our everyday spontaneous behaviour. As such, is much of our daily routine behaviour stimulus-bound – do we underestimate the power of environmental triggers in controlling our behaviour? Dual-process theories of motivational control attempt to provide theoretical accounts for will power, addictions and the inner motives behind our goal direction.
More broadly, is there a universal equivalence across motives? For example, when we are hungry food becomes more salient and we are more likely to attend and orient to food stimuli, and also adopt food-related goals. Once sated, our goals are re-prioritized accordingly. Is this also true for ‘higher order’ motives systems such as Power-Autonomy, Affiliation and Achievement?
Recently I’ve published work on positive psychology exercises in school children. Using a positive diary methodology, this work demonstrated improvements in wellbeing and also shed light on the psychological mechanisms involved. Unpublished work has explored these questions in teenage and adult populations.
Building on this I have two current PhDs (KESS) that are looking at developing light-touch positive psychology interventions for use in two contexts (1) in unemployed or economically vulnerable individuals; (2) in those experiencing NCDs (non-communicable diseases e.g. resulting from smoking, overweight, drinking). The goals of this work are to:
– Extend the efficacy of positive psychology interventions into these populations (PP normally focuses more centrally on ‘healthy population’)
– Understand the underlying psychological mechanism driving the efficacy of these approaches.
The value of positive psychology interventions that promote optimal functioning in everyday life is likely to grow and have greater future impact. For example, the Welsh Government’s focus on ‘Prudent Heath’ and associated drive for prevention rather than cure, as well as an emphasis on individuals taking ownership of their own health and life outcomes. Whilst not strictly clinical in nature, it is likely that health providers will look more to prevention techniques and engage with the general ‘healthy’ population.
Success here would lead to (1) a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms underlying these aspects of goal achievement; and on the back of this (2) interventions that promote healthy cognitive and behavioural habits to help individuals achieve their goals.
Applied Positive Psychology
The above work has led to collaborations with organisations such as Public Health Wales and Gwynedd Council. I am also working closely with a community interest company in Rhyl – RCS http://www.rcs-wales.co.uk/en/ who work to promote wellbeing in the workplace and to offer support to individuals who are struggling to engage with employment. We are currently piloting an innovative 8-week programme “BOOST!” that aims to support long-term unemployed individuals to get back into the workforce through. The core themes of this include attributional training, strength finding, resilience building and motivational restructuring http://www.rcs-wales.co.uk/en/project/boost/.