Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Managing life change

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Managing life change:
How to get where you want to be

Overview[edit | edit source]

Think for a minute
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Think for a minute about the moment that most clearly defines you. This could be moving house, changing your job, overcoming a habit, finishing a degree, or ending a destructive relationship. How you describe it could well be an indication of how you think about yourself and your life. Bear your descriptions in mind as you read through the following.

People make changes to their lives in order to live better, happier, and more meaningful lives (King, 2001). These life changes are fueled by one’s perception of current life involving relationships, careers, and habits; essentially everything that is part of one’s life (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005; Heatherton & Nichols, 1994). One of the best indications of knowing whether your life is all you want it to be is through disclosing personal stories or micronarratives (Heatherton et al., 1994). This is because our life meaning is found in the stories we disclose and how we subjectively perceive them or describe them (Bauer et al., 2005; King et al., 2001). By disclosing these stories, we are disclosing our perceptions, selective recollections, and attributions of the environment and of ourselves (Bauer et al., 2005). Thus, if the first stories that come to mind are riddled with negativity and failure it may well be a sign that the goals and the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves is too great (Bauer et al., 2005).

Not sure where you're going?
Life lacking direction?

People change all the time without clinical intervention, however, it should be noted that change incorporates immense emotional, motivational, environmental, and possibly social variables.

Engage with your environment

For example, a study conducted by Heatherton et al. (1994) analysed individual’s stories about effective life change. The stories generally featured health behaviours, happiness, addictions, career changes, and general attitudes. Each individual’s story was analysed in terms of attributions and the focal event, or the event that motivated change. People who had effectively managed change where more likely to mention their social support networks, gaining help from other resources, and providing others with help whereas people who had not made a change did not mention any of these variables (Heatherton et al., 1994). It was found that by having support networks in place, we are more likely to effectively facilitate long term change, and by changing aspects of our environment, we are much more likely to kick a habit (Heatherton et al., 1994). Additionally, attributing failure to external events was also associated with effective change, whereas internalising failure resulted in no change (Heatherton et al., 1994).

These results indicate that in order to change one must have an adequate support network and, once change has occurred, to be able to discriminate between whether failures are due to an individual's lack of skill or to the circumstances. Although the limitations of this study include the subjective nature of the stories in that there was no way to empirically test whether these stories were accurate and what variable most impacted change (i.e. motivational, social, or cognitive factors), much can still be taken from it. The simple idea of measuring one's thoughts regarding change or inability to change was reflected in the way the participants told their stories. Heatherton's et al. (1994) study exhibits good construct validity and appears to be reliable. Thus, micronarratives are a useful way of determining why change was needed.

It's All About You!

Thinking back on a significant life change that you have made, or would like to be making, how will you structure your environment or make changes to ensure that your goal is attained?

Lost and found possible selves[edit | edit source]

Be Realistic!
Assess what resources you have access to, what you are capable of, and what you want to do. How are you going to transform these ideals into reality?

Possible selves reflect the goals we try to achieve in order to become better people or our desired selves (King et al., 2007). They reflect what one wants one's future to be and provide the motivation to engage in goal directed behaviours towards achieving these goals (King et al., 2007). They are also part of an individual’s salient possible self which reflects our goals or desires that we are consciously aware of and provides daily motivation (King et al., 2007). Lost possible selves are our possible selves that can no longer be achieved and they reflect a need for significant life change (King et al., 2007). Lost possible selves remain important to our identity as they are part of one’s life story (King et al., 2007). In order to manage lost goals effectively, one must combine past personal experiences and discover a link that has provided one with direction in their life (such as family, career change etc.) (King et al., 2007). Essentially, managing lost and found possible selves is all about learning how to think differently to help and fuel personal development (King et al., 2007).

Similar to trying out new identities

For example, in a longitudinal study conducted by Wrosch, Amir, and Miller (2011) concerning the type of goals each participant had and their overall well-being significantly impacted on their coping strategies. The participants in this study were family members who were the primary care giver of another family member who had been diagnosed with a long term mental illness and had been ill for an average of 16 years. Overall, the study found that the ability to form goals and the type of goals that were formed significantly impacted coping strategies (Wrosch et al., 2011). Additionally, the participants who could disengage from unrealistic goals were found to have the best coping strategies (Wrosch et al., 2011). They were less likely to internalise failures, experience depression, and rely on substances for coping (Wrosch et al., 2011).

Therefore, the ability to cope and to externalise failures are both important factors in terms of managing life change. As the study showed, the ability to recognise that a goal cannot be achieved and thus disengage from this goal results in better psychological functioning and health, whereas the inability to do this was found to result in depression, substance abuse or misuse (Worsch et al., 2011). Although this study only concerned emotion-based coping over a long period of time, the results may not be generalisable to the whole population (Worsch et al., 2011). Stress related to “smaller” things (although entirely subjective) may be easier to manage than ongoing stress concerning a psychologically ill family member; how people cope with things is context and individually dependent.

Why people avoid change, the cost-benefit ratio, and cognitive dissonance[edit | edit source]

Robert has been with his girlfriend for one and a half years. He loves his girlfriend very much and is hoping to marry her. Lately, his girlfriend has not had time for him. She works late, cancels dates, and does not allow time in her schedule for them to spend time together. Although these things have commonly occured throughout the past six months, Robert reasons these issues away thinking that she has been too stressed at work to find time. This reasoning also allows him to avoid bringing up the subject as he does not want to add to her stress.

People are exceptionally good at justifying and distorting environments and experiences to avoid cognitive dissonance (Fointiat, Somat, & Grosbras, 2011). Perceptions may be deliberately distorted to best suit us; if life circumstances appear more favourable there is little need to make drastic changes (Fointiat et al., 2011). Essentially, it is easier not to make a choice. One of the main reasons people avoid changing personally harmful life events or relationships is based on how the perception of such events are constructed (Fointiat et al., 2011). Baumeister et al. (1994) proposed the cost-benefit ratio which maintains that one is more likely to remain submissive in their environment if the benefits of maintaining this life status outweigh any unhappiness that one may be experiencing. Simply put, our perceptions are what maintains our behaviours and thoughts.

weighing up pros and cons

These perceptions may be distorted from the truth due to the deliberate distortion of evidence, that is, the pros outweigh the cons (Bausmeister et al., 1994). This may also be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance (Baumeister et al., 1994). If one remains unhappy in one's environment although one is fulfilling their social roles, one may maximise the pros of remaining in their position (Baumeister et al., 1994). By doing this, it leaves little room for dissatisfaction as attention is only placed on the external positives of remaining in that role (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Thus, when our [w:Role|social roles]] are less than satisfactory, the maintenance of these roles is entirely dependent on the individual’s action that they choose. One will selectively choose whether to focus on either the benefits or the failures of their situation, depending on their reasoning one will either actively try to maintain their social relationships or actively change their social relationships, habits, or behaviours (Baumeister et al., 1994). One of the ways this is facilitated is by implementing selective attention (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Selective attention refers to deliberately disregarding and ignoring negative events which enables one to limit how much they feel about something (Bargh, 1982). By limiting the time spent thinking about something, the smaller and less significant it is interpreted to be (Bargh et al., 1982). This is extremely effective, particularly for small dissatisfactions (Bargh et al., 1992). Additionally, information that threatens what we believe is actively ignored, hence one creates their environment so only positive events that confirm our ideas and beliefs are experienced (Baumeister et al., 1994). If, however, one does stumble across information that contradicts the carefully created situations that benefit and support one’s current life circumstances, the information is ignored. Therefore, the information is no longer threatening (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Robert's attributions to avoid and implement change...

Avoid change[edit | edit source]

  • Attributes his girlfriend's distance to environmental circumstances
  • Casually dismisses any information that implies that she has lost interest in him
  • Limits the amount of time spent thinking negatively about the circumstance

Make change[edit | edit source]

  • Seek out social support and friendships, develop existing relationships
  • Selective attention, limit the amount of negativity allowed into his life
  • Learn to externalise failures

Benefits of depressive symptoms[edit | edit source]

Depressive symptoms may assist in future goal development

Although long term depression is highly correlated with low quality of life, it has been found that mild depressive symptoms experienced during adolescence may be beneficial in terms of effective life management (Wrosch & Miller, 2009). In a study conducted by Wrosch et al. (2009) it was found that depressive symptoms actually helped and motivated people to abandon unattainable goals and replace them with new, more achievable goals. It has been hypothesised that experiencing depressed mood changes an individual's perceptions of their direct environment (Wrosch et al., 2009). This is because the positives and negativities of one's life are realised as their interpretation of events become more objective (Wrosch et al., 2009). This will facilitate goal change by rejecting goals that cannot be achieved and by replacing these goals with ones that can be attained, by doing this one adapts to the environment and facilitates change in this environment to better suit their needs (Wrosch et al., 2009). When this change is made, psychological well-being will be increased because the goals and environment are perceived differently; one becomes successful at controlling one's behaviour and by extension their environment (Wrosch et al., 2009).

The Wrosch et al. (2009) study aimed to test whether adolescents who had experienced depressive symptoms were more likely to realise the likelihood of failing to achieve an unattainable goal. When the participants realised that a goal could not be achieved they reanalysed their goals (Wrosch et al., 2009). Interestingly, it was found that those who had experienced depressive symptoms were less likely to maintain unachievable goals and by learning how to disengage from goals resulted in better overall psychological well-being compared to a control group who did not experience depressive symptoms (Wrosch et al., 2009). It was also found that those who had experienced depressive symptoms could effectively practice better self-regulation.

How could this help Robert?
Robert may actually be better off letting go of his goal of marrying his distant girlfriend. He may experience symptoms of depression (not clinical depression) which will provide him with more realistic attributions of his girlfriend's behaviour. A more attainable goal may be to improve their current relationship by having a discussion regarding why the relationship is no longer working.

Crystallisation of discontent vs. crystallisation of desire[edit | edit source]

Escape behaviour

Life change is generally motivated by one of two possibilities (Bauer et al., 2005). It is motivated by either crystallisation of desire, which reflects the realisation of what one wants to accomplish in the future (Bauer et al., 2005), or by crystallisation of discontent, which refers to the current state of our lives that we have chosen to reject (Baumeister et al., 1994). Crystallisation of discontent refers to an individual’s interpretation of their actions, thoughts, and feelings in response to their environment (Baumeister et al., 1994). It features the development or recognition of sub-standard, defective parts of one’s life (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Before crystallisation of discontent occurs, people will feel negatively about different areas of their lives (Baumeister et al., 1994). This may include the functioning in a relationship, enjoyment in paid employment, or dissatisfaction with one’s habits (Baumeister et al., 1994). The crystallisation process refers to the combining of all this negativity from each area in life (Baumeister et al., 1994). Essentially, it is the generalisation from one negative experience which automatically evokes other feelings of discontent related to other life circumstances (Baumeister et al., 1994). The end result is immense dissatisfaction with one’s life which results in one’s questioning of one's roles, relationships, and commitments made in all aspects of their life. Essentially all the small dissatisfactions build up and become interchangeable and related (Baumeister et al., 1994).

Both crystallisation of desire and discontent can be described through approach and avoidance orientations (Bauer et al., 2005). Crystallisation of desire is motivated by an approach orientation which is when one actively moves or creates goals to achieve a desired state (Bauer et al., 2005). On the other hand, crystallisation of discontent is powered by avoidance orientation which is a reflection of knowing exactly what one does not want, yet does not provide goals or motivation to achieve what one does want (Bauer et al., 2005). Essentially, the difference between crystallisation of discontent and desire is the difference between knowing what you want to do and knowing what you do not want to do (Bauer et al., 2005).

The Focal Incident

Before one can implement a change to one's life, one must objectively interpret one's current situation and map out why it is not ideal or suiting one's needs (Baumeister et al., 1994). Honesty about yourself to yourself is absolutely essential when undergoing transformation, so be sure to eliminate maintenance thoughts (Baumeister et al., 1994). The focal incident or event is that final event that motivates change. It is the destruction and rejection of current life standards and precedes both crystallisation of discontent or desire (Heatherton et al., 1994).

Regrets and failure[edit | edit source]

Regrets may be experienced with the perception of lost opportunities, creating psychological distress and impaired functioning (King & Hicks, 2007). Although goals will generally improve well-being (provided they are realistic), negative experiences in terms of goal failure may also become a reality (King et al., 2007). Importantly when effectively managing life change, one must expect failure to occur. When one does fail, this failure will provide a rich avenue for further personal development and learning (King et al., 2007). The amazing thing about failing goals is that it provides the ability for personal growth, to reassess wants, desires, and the place one wants in the world. One cannot let failure dominate the rest of one’s life, instead one must accept this failure and practice effective self-regulation (King et al., 2007). Self-regulation involves the ability to set goals, disengage from goals when they cannot be completed. Essentially, it reflects the ability to think rationally and acceptance of possible failure (King et al., 2007).

Failures reflect our imperfections and limited capabilities (King et al., 2007). However, life effectiveness often involves maturity, which reflects the ability to admit regrets, struggles, and failures to others, more importantly reflecting on failures as being educational and being beneficial (King et al., 2007). It signifies the ability to grow out of misfortunes and the ability to confront lost possible selves, the old ideal selves that were once striven for and dismissed as these goals are unattainable (King et al., 2007). In order to achieve our goals or get to the stage of where we want to be, these goals need to be reanalysed and possibly modified to better suit our life stage (Bauer et al., 2005).

Admit how terrible you are!
By disclosing personal failures and setbacks, you will be better able to deal with developing the next step in your life. Additionally, by letting go of these past failures you are able to learn more about yourself and your capabilities. This will provide key knowledge in developing future goals which will improve the likelihood of achieving these goals.

Focus on the positives: Gratitude[edit | edit source]

Seemingly, the most common goal for humans globally is that to achieve happiness (Emmons, 2005; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Happiness is an important part of overall well-being which reflects an overall satisfaction of one’s life, activities, and relationships (Emmons et al., 2005). The benefits of living happy lives are extensive and feature increased physiological well-being, better immune system functioning, the ability to enrich people’s lives around you, better self-regulation, self-control, and coping strategies, longer lives, increased immune system functioning (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).

A key point regarding happiness is that it is not easy to achieve. Feelings of happiness are experienced when life is going to plan, however when things do not turn out the desired way, happiness is harder to achieve (King et al., 2001). However, one way to increase long term happiness, as suggested by Emmons and McCullough (2003), is to focus on gratitude. Gratitude, put simply, is being grateful for all you have as well as recognising your fortunes and value those who are part of one’s life (Emmons et al., 2003). Gratitude also concerns attributions in regards to who or what you attribute your fortunes to (Emmons et al., 2003). In Emmons et al. (2003) study, the link between gratitude and well-being was developed. Participants who were encouraged to think about things there were grateful for reported higher levels of life satisfaction, increased positive thoughts regarding the immediate future, as well as reporting less physical ailments, and an increased desire to exercise (Emmons et al., 2003). Participants who had an increased awareness of why they should be grateful by recording all the things they were grateful for on a daily basis experienced increased awareness of the things one was grateful for, increased positive affect, increased desire to help others, to exercise to seek help when needed, and to offer help. Although the link between gratitude and happiness has not been extensively researched, the current study provides some useful insights in terms of self and environmental awareness. Future studies could potentially investigate the long term effects of gratitude and life satisfaction to discover if there is a true link.

Try it yourself

List 10 things that you are grateful for. These could include things like having a loving family, the ability to go to work or school, or having friends. Then reason you failures as necessary to get where you want to be. By combining the information in the previous section with the ability to focus on positives, your attributions of the world around you will change. By changing these attributions you will be better able to set appropriate goals.

Create goals that can be achieved... and mistakes are OK![edit | edit source]

Hit your target!

Setting new goals facilitate growth. Goals are also seen as a deliberate action to improve an individual’s life or personal characteristics (Bauer & McAdams, 2004; King, 2001). Goals allow us to direct and add meaning to our behaviour, they allow us to create direction in our lives (Riediger, Freund, & Baltes, 2005). Goals and life management provide the circumstances for personal success and failure, however how one modifies one's goals and the goals one implements can either encourage or hinder development (Reidiger et al., 2005). By merely setting goals one is manipulating one's environment in two ways (Reidiger et al., 2005). Goals provide behavioural direction in order to achieve something that is (generally) personally important, however goals also provide the opportunity for personal failure (Emmons et al. 2005). Goals also reflect personal differences, they reflect what an individual discriminates between and labels as very important and what is not as important (McAdams, 1995)[grammar?]. People cannot always predict and control their environments (Emmons et al. 2005), however people can shape their environments to best facilitate their needs. Essentially, in order to achieve goals we alter our environments (Reidiger et al., 2005).

How goals are structured may result in lowered life satisfaction, thus it is important to be realistic and allow oneself to make mistakes (King et al., 2001). An important part of being able to realise that a goal may no longer be applicable to one's life is to grow from experience, and in order to grow from experience both negative and positive experiences must take part in an individual’s life (King et al., 2001). When implementing goals, a key way to ensure optimal success is to design the goals to be related to each other, so achievement of one goal may assist in the achievement of consecutive goals. This is known as goal facilitation (Riediger et al., 2005). By making sure that all goals are linked, one also escapes the possibility of intergoal interference where achievement of one goal means that achievement of another goal cannot occur (Riediger et al., 2005).

This was demonstrated in a study conducted by Riediger et al. (2005) which found that individuals who used goal facilitation where more determined or motivated to achieve consecutive goals and worked towards these goals daily than those who experienced intergoal interference. Although the study used older participants and the results may not be generalised to the whole population, it does provide insight as to how to create links within achievements to effectively manage life.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Can you work out how to make a positive change to your life? The chapter has demonstrated what motivates change, including guidelines as to how and when goals should be let go, and has highlighted the importance of negative life events or mood states. In doing this, a variety of theories including crystallisation of discontent and desire, lost and found possible selves, cognitive dissonance, the power of thought in terms of how we interpret our environment, and the focal incident have been explored. Empirical evidence has also been described and implemented in order to ‘fill out’ these theories, and examples have been used to simplify the complexity of these theories. Overall, the reader should now be equipped with a sound knowledge in how maintenance thoughts and behaviours should be abolished in order for the reader to develop new goals and achieve the desired self.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bargh, J. A. (1982). Attention and automaticity in the processing of self-relevant information. Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 425-436. doi: 0022-3574/82/4303=0425

Baumeister, R. F. (1994). The crystallization of discontent in the process of major life change. In T. Heatherton & J. Weinberger (Eds). Can Personality Change? (pp. 281-297). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bauer, J. J., & McAdams, D. P. (2004). Personal growth in adults’ stories of life transitions. Journal of Personality, 73, 573-602. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00346.x

Bauer, J. J., McAdams, D. P., & Sakaeda, R. A. (2005). Crystallization of desire and crystallization of discontent in narratives of life-changing decisions. Journal of Personality, 73, 1181-1214. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00346.

Brandtstäder, J., & Renner, G. (1990). Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: Explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology and Aging, 5, 58-69. doi: 0882-7974/90

Emmons, A. R. (2005). Striving for the sacred: Personal goals, life meaning, and religion. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 731-745. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2005.00429.x

Emmons, A. R., & McCullough, E. M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Fointiat, V., Somat, A., & Grosbras, J-M. (2011). Saying, but not doing: Induced hypocrisy, trivalization, and misattribution. Social Beharior and Personality, 37, 465-476. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2011.39.4.465

Heatherton, F. T., & Nichols, P. A. (1994). Personal accounts of successful versus failed attempts at life change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 664-675. doi: 10.1177/014616729426005

King, A. L. (2001). The hard road to the good life: The happy, mature person. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 51-72. doi: 10.1177/0022167801411005

King, A. L., & Hicks, A. J. (2007). Whatever happened to “what might have been”? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist, 62, 625-636. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.7.625

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, M. K., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111

McAdams, D. P. (1995). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality, 63, 365-396. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1995.tb00500.x

Reidiger, M., Freund, M. A., & Baltes, B. P. (2005). Managing life through personal goals: Intergoal facilitation and intensity of goal pursuit in younger and older adulthood. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 60B, 84-91. doi:10.1093/geronb/60.2.P84

Wrosch, C., Amir, E., & Miller, G. E. (2011). Goal adjustment capacities, coping and subjective well-being: The sample case of care giving for a family member with mental illness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 934-946. doi: 10.1037/a0022873

Wrosch, C., & Miller, G. E. (2009). Depressive symptoms can be useful: Self-regulatory and emotional benefits of dysphoric mood in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1181-1190. doi: 10.1037/a0015172

External links[edit | edit source]