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Recent research: six studies on positive psychology, goals, relationships, caregiving, mindfulness & nature

Here are half a dozen studies that one could loosely put under the broad umbrella of positive psychology.  Zorba the Greek said "Take what you want and pay for it, says God." and Niemiec et al's study, on the effects of achieving different kinds of goal, supports this statement (for all six research studies mentioned in this blog post see below for abstracts and links).  Quoting Niemiec et al's somewhat awkward language: "The relation of aspiration attainment to psychological health was found to differ as a function of the content of the goals. Attainment of the intrinsic aspirations for personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, and physical health related positively to basic psychological need satisfaction and psychological health. In contrast, attainment of the extrinsic aspirations for money, fame, and image was unrelated to basic psychological need satisfaction and related slightly negatively to psychological health.  Thus, the importance of providing need-supportive contexts that allow for the development of intrinsic aspirations and the facilitation of psychological health is apparent."  See the excellent Self-determination theory website and further details on this website for lots more on goals & motivations.

There are then a couple of studies on relationships.  The Brown et al study is fascinating in a number of ways.  One is that it extends the literature on the hormone oxytocin and its association with social closeness and trust.  A problem with research on oxytocin is that currently it is tricky to measure brain concentrations of this substance.  It seems that centrally-released oxytocin levels may be mirrored by peripheral levels of progesterone (in men & women) - and that the progesterone can both be easily measured in saliva and is itself associated with affiliative motivation.  As an aside, interpersonal closeness was generated successfully using exercises described in Aron et al's earlier paper "The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness".  In a further study on relationships by Brown and colleagues, they report the intriguing finding that elderly married individuals " ... spending at least 14 hr per week providing care to a spouse predicted decreased mortality for the caregiver, independently of behavioral and cognitive limitations of the care recipient (spouse), and of other demographic and health variables. These findings suggest that it may be premature to conclude that health risks for caregivers are due to providing active help. Indeed, under some circumstances, caregivers may actually benefit from providing care."

A further couple of studies explore Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).  Allen et al interviewed MBCT participants about what they found " ... helpful, meaningful and difficult about MBCT as a relapse prevention program (for depression). Thematic analysis was used to identify the key patterns and elements in participants' accounts. Results and conclusions: Four overarching themes were extracted: control, acceptance, relationships and struggle. The theoretical, clinical and research implications are discussed."  Raes et al looked at Cognitive Reactivity (CR) - the degree to which a mild dysphoric state reactivates negative thinking patterns.  They comment that "Although Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) directly aims to address this mechanism of CR, the relationship between mindfulness and CR has not been tested to date."  In a couple of studies they found that "(a) trait mindfulness is significantly negatively correlated with CR, even when controlled for current depressive symptoms and prior history of depression (Study 1), and that (b) MBCT, compared to a matched control group, significantly reduces CR, and that this effect of MBCT on reduction of CR is mediated by a positive change in mindfulness skills (Study 2). Results provide first evidence for the claim that mindfulness practices in MBCT are designed to address the process of CR."

Finally in a return to the issue of intrinsic and extrinsic goals mentioned in the first of these six described research papers, Weinstein et al published a paper entitled "Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity."  They report "Four studies examined the effects of nature on valuing intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations reflected prosocial and other-focused value orientations, and extrinsic aspirations predicted self-focused value orientations. Participants immersed in natural environments reported higher valuing of intrinsic aspirations and lower valuing of extrinsic aspirations, whereas those immersed in non-natural environments reported increased valuing of extrinsic aspirations and no change of intrinsic aspirations."  

Niemiec, C. P., R. M. Ryan, et al. (2009). "The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life " Journal of Research in Personality 43(3): 291-306.  [Free Full Text]
Life goals, or aspirations, organize and direct behavior over extended periods of time. The current study, guided by self-determination theory, examined the consequences of pursuing and attaining aspirations over a 1-year period in a post-college sample. Results indicated that placing importance on either intrinsic or extrinsic aspirations related positively to attainment of those goals. Yet, whereas attainment of intrinsic aspirations related positively to psychological health, attainment of extrinsic aspirations did not; indeed, attainment of extrinsic aspirations related positively to indicators of ill-being. Also as predicted, the association between change in attainment of intrinsic aspirations and change in psychological health was mediated by change in the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Discussion focuses on the idea that not all goal attainment is beneficial; rather, attainment of aspirations with different contents relates differentially to psychological health.

Brown, S. L., B. L. Fredrickson, et al. (2009). "Social closeness increases salivary progesterone in humans." Horm Behav 56(1): 108-11.  [Free Full Text]
We examined whether interpersonal closeness increases salivary progesterone. One hundred and sixty female college students (80 dyads) were randomly assigned to participate in either a closeness task with a partner versus a neutral task with a partner. Those exposed to the closeness induction had higher levels of progesterone relative to those exposed to the neutral task. Across conditions, progesterone increase one week later predicted the willingness to sacrifice for the partner. These results are discussed in terms of the links between social contact, stress, and health.

Brown, S. L., D. M. Smith, et al. (2009). "Caregiving behavior is associated with decreased mortality risk." Psychol Sci 20(4): 488-94.  [PubMed] 
Traditional investigations of caregiving link it to increased caregiver morbidity and mortality, but do not disentangle the effects of providing care from those of being continuously exposed to an ailing loved one with serious health problems. We explored this possible confound in a national, longitudinal survey of elderly married individuals (N= 3,376). Results showed that spending at least 14 hr per week providing care to a spouse predicted decreased mortality for the caregiver, independently of behavioral and cognitive limitations of the care recipient (spouse), and of other demographic and health variables. These findings suggest that it may be premature to conclude that health risks for caregivers are due to providing active help. Indeed, under some circumstances, caregivers may actually benefit from providing care.

Allen, M., A. Bromley, et al. (2009). "Participants' Experiences of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: "It Changed Me in Just about Every Way Possible?" Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 37(04): 413-430.  [Abstract/Full Text]
Background: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a promising approach to help people who suffer recurrent depression prevent depressive relapse. However, little is known about how MBCT works. Moreover, participants' subjective experiences of MBCT as a relapse prevention treatment remain largely unstudied.  Aim: This study examines participants' representations of their experience of MBCT and its value as a relapse-prevention program for recurrent depression.  Method: Twenty people who had participated in MBCT classes for recurrent depression within a primary care setting were interviewed 12 months after treatment. The focus of the interview was on participants' reflections on what they found helpful, meaningful and difficult about MBCT as a relapse prevention program. Thematic analysis was used to identify the key patterns and elements in participants' accounts. Results and conclusions: Four overarching themes were extracted: control, acceptance, relationships and struggle. The theoretical, clinical and research implications are discussed.

Raes, F., D. Dewulf, et al. (2009). "Mindfulness and reduced cognitive reactivity to sad mood: evidence from a correlational study and a non-randomized waiting list controlled study." Behav Res Ther 47(7): 623-7.  [PubMed]
Cognitive Reactivity (CR) refers to the degree to which a mild dysphoric state reactivates negative thinking patterns, and it has been found to play a key causal role in depressive relapse. Although Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) directly aims to address this mechanism of CR, the relationship between mindfulness and CR has not been tested to date. Using a cross-sectional design (Study 1; n = 164) and a non-randomized waiting list controlled design (Study 2; MBCT [n = 18] vs. waiting list [n = 21]), the authors examined the relationship between naturally occurring levels of mindfulness (Study 1) and MBCT (Study 2) on the one hand, and CR on the other hand. In line with predictions, it was found that (a) trait mindfulness is significantly negatively correlated with CR, even when controlled for current depressive symptoms and prior history of depression (Study 1), and that (b) MBCT, compared to a matched control group, significantly reduces CR, and that this effect of MBCT on reduction of CR is mediated by a positive change in mindfulness skills (Study 2). Results provide first evidence for the claim that mindfulness practices in MBCT are designed to address the process of CR.

Weinstein, N., A. K. Przybylski, et al. (2009). "Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity." Pers Soc Psychol Bull.  [PubMed]
Four studies examined the effects of nature on valuing intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations reflected prosocial and other-focused value orientations, and extrinsic aspirations predicted self-focused value orientations. Participants immersed in natural environments reported higher valuing of intrinsic aspirations and lower valuing of extrinsic aspirations, whereas those immersed in non-natural environments reported increased valuing of extrinsic aspirations and no change of intrinsic aspirations. Three studies explored experiences of nature relatedness and autonomy as underlying mechanisms of these effects, showing that nature immersion elicited these processes whereas non-nature immersion thwarted them and that they in turn predicted higher intrinsic and lower extrinsic aspirations. Studies 3 and 4 also extended the paradigm by testing these effects on generous decision making indicative of valuing intrinsic versus extrinsic aspirations.

 

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