Guide Prevention Psychology: Enhancing Personal and Social Well-Being

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  1. Maintaining good mental health
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  4. Positive Psychology of Meaning in Life & Well-Being

Experimental social psychology is full of examples showing that positive emotional experiences have beneficial effects on the way people perceive and interpret social behaviours and how they initiate social interactions e. Forgas, ; Isen, It has also been found that people experiencing positive emotions evaluate themselves and others more positively, make more lenient attributions, and behave in a more confident, optimistic, and generous way in interpersonal situations Forgas, , ; Sedikides, Positive emotions can be the consequence of certain cognitive or behavioural processes as well as their cause.

Positive emotions are not, however, beneficial for all cognitive processes.

Maintaining good mental health

There is evidence that people in negative mood states are better at taking in the details of a situation, and that people who are sad, anxious, or fearful are more conforming and less likely to break rules e. Forgas , ; Huppert, Bless and Fiedler suggested that the different cognitive styles engendered by positive and negative emotions are adaptive.

The emotion circuitry of the brain is complex, involving primarily structures in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulated cortex, and insular cortex. These structures normally work together to process and generate emotional information and emotional behaviour. Research has particularly focused on the prefrontal cortex which, unlike most other brain regions involved in emotion processing, shows asymmetric activation in relation to positive and negative emotions.

Davidson and his colleagues have reported large individual differences in baseline levels of asymmetric activation in prefrontal cortex, related to a person's typical emotional style. Important links between child development and the appearance of individual differences in patterns of brain activation have also been reported. This is a period during which high levels of plasticity are likely to occur in the brain's emotional and cognitive circuitry, particularly in the prefrontal cortex which continues to undergo important developmental changes until puberty Huttenlocher, Life events, parental influences, and other environmental factors are likely to play a crucial role during this formative period in establishing or shifting patterns of prefrontal activation.

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Of particular interest in the context of positive emotions and cognition is the neurobiological evidence that left and right frontal lobes play different roles in the processing of information. Spontaneous strategy production appears to depend critically on left prefrontal cortex, while error detection and checking processes appear to depend on right prefrontal cortex Shallice, , Brain activation studies have tended to focus either on emotion or on cognition. Where research is integrated, it is usually concerned with emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Future research will need to integrate more fully the neuroscience of cognition and emotion, and develop a more detailed understanding of the relationship between emotional and cognitive processes in distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex dorsolateral, ventromedial, orbitofrontal , as well as other brain areas. Levels of cortisol secretion vary markedly throughout the day.

Both positive and negative states are associated with the cortisol response, but independently of each other. Another neurochemical associated with mental states is serotonin 5HT. But what is the relationship between serotonin and positive mental states? In a study of healthy adults who made daily ratings of their mood, Flory, Manuck, Matthews, and Muldoon found that serotonin level was related to positive mood averaged across seven days, but not to negative mood, although it was related to a measure of neuroticism. The authors conclude that deficiencies in serotonergic function may reflect the relative absence of positive mood—a suggestion which warrants further investigation.

Oxytocin has long been known for its important role in childbirth and lactation, but experimental studies have also shown an independent effect on mother—infant bonding. After giving birth, animals to whom oxytocin antagonists have been administered do not exhibit typical maternal behaviour. By contrast, virgin females show maternal behaviour following administration of oxytocin Kendrick, In humans, oxytocin is released during orgasm.

People vary widely in their typical emotional style, that is whether they tend to feel generally positive or generally negative. The key to understanding individual differences in emotional style is the extraordinarily protracted period of human brain development. Unlike the other major organs of the body, our brain undergoes most of its development postnatally, and is exquisitely designed to respond to the environmental conditions in which a child happens to grow up.

There appears to be a sensitive period in brain development up to around age 2 e. Of particular importance is the closeness of the bond between mother and infant. The body of research on human infants undertaken by Ainsworth and later investigators e. This has been amply confirmed in an elegant series of experimental studies of rodents by Meaney and colleagues Meaney, , in which the underlying neurobiological mechanisms have been identified.

Animals experiencing early maternal separation become readily addicted to psychostimulants which do not produce addiction in a normally reared comparison group. This suggests a possible neurobiological basis for human individual differences in vulnerability to compulsive drug taking. Is recovery from an adverse early environment possible?

Having an absent, abusive, or authoritarian father is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems in adolescence and early adulthood e. On the other hand, Jorm, Dear, Rodgers, and Christensen found that mental health outcomes were poor when the father showed a high level of affection but the mother showed a low level. More recently this gene has been found to affect brain activation in those regions involved in processing emotion. The two groups had no psychiatric disorder and were similar in age, gender, and personality.

The observed effect on brain function may mediate a genetic susceptibility for mood disorders. While research is advancing rapidly on genes which confer increased risk of psychological disorders, research is also needed to identify whether there are genes which increase the probability of psychological flourishing.

Several sources of evidence suggest that while some drivers are the same, others are not. One of the strongest predictors drivers of our usual emotional style is personality, particularly the dimensions of extraversion and neuroticism. Extraversion sociability is strongly associated with a positive emotional style, while neuroticism is associated with a negative emotional style e. Thus, neuroticism appears to drive negative mood and common mental disorders, whereas extraversion drives positive emotional characteristics.

Personality is related not only to how we feel but also to how well we function psychologically. Most large surveys showed little evidence of gender differences e. Some showed higher scores for men e. Interactions between age and gender have also been reported. There is also evidence, from both the US and the UK, that having children living in the household is not good for women's happiness Kahneman. For example, Chevalier and Feinstein found that men with a high level of education were more likely to be depressed than those with less education.

The reverse gradient for education could also reflect the role of education in raising expectations which may not have been fulfilled.

Higher national income inequality is linked to a higher prevalence of mental illness e. Unemployment has long been associated with the presence of mental health problems e.

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In many studies, the direction of causality cannot be ascertained, but data from some longitudinal studies demonstrate that people who started out relatively happy became unhappy after they were unemployed e. However, data from the British Health and Lifestyle Survey suggest that we may need a more nuanced approach to measuring the impact of unemployment. Survey measures of psychological distress usually combine responses to items about symptoms and about positive mood or functioning, the latter being reverse scored.

In other words, unemployed people do not on average show evidence of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety; rather, they fail to flourish. These researchers divide intentional activities into three broad groups: a behaviours—such as taking regular exercise or being kind to others; b cognitions—such as interpreting events in a positive light or feeling gratitude; and c motivations—such as striving towards goals which reflect deeply held values rather than being driven by external rewards. This is, after all, the basis for cognitive behaviour therapy CBT which has hitherto been used very successfully to reduce symptoms in individuals with mental health problems.


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It has long been known that negative emotions are related to a higher prevalence of disease, but how strong is the evidence for a link between positive mental states and health? Evidence from both longitudinal and experimental studies shows that a positive emotional style has a beneficial effect on physical health and survival.


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  • In a famous longitudinal study, the Nun Study, it was discovered that the ageing nuns had all written brief autobiographies when they had entered the convent generally around age 20 , and these autobiographies were categorised according to the number of positive statements they contained. Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen reported that nuns in the lower half of the distribution of positive statements died on average 9 years sooner than those in the top category of positive statements.

    This finding is particularly remarkable because, from their early twenties, the lives of the nuns were as similar as human lives can be, so the difference in survival was not related to their lifestyle or circumstances in the intervening period, but to their positive emotions six decades earlier. An important physiological mediator underlying the relationship between positive emotions, health, and survival is likely to be the functioning of the immune system. This has been confirmed in experimental studies, such as those by Cohen and his colleagues.

    In one study, several hundred healthy volunteers were administered nasal drops containing a common cold virus, and monitored in quarantine. The investigators found that the more positive the participant's emotional style, the lower their risk of developing a cold. Negative emotional style, though, was not associated with developing a cold e. A study by Marsland, Cohen, Rabin, and Manuck examined the relationship between emotional style and antibody response to the Hepatitis B vaccine.

    Positive Psychology of Meaning in Life & Well-Being

    Participants with high scores on trait positive affect produced significantly more antibodies to the vaccine. There was no relationship between antibody response and either trait negative affect or depression. The above studies assessed the emotional style of the participants but did not try to alter it. It is therefore difficult to be sure whether the individuals' positive characteristics were causally related to the outcome or whether there might be a common cause of both the characteristics and the outcome.

    Using an intervention which increases positive mental states mindfulness meditation , they reported that the meditation group produced a significantly greater antibody response than the control group to a subsequent influenza vaccine, measured some months later. The research on girl-friendly math and science instruction is an excellent example of this last point. Years of research see Eccles et al. More work is needed to determine if similar processes and interventions would work to support school achievement in those cultural groups that currently are not doing as well in school as white middle-class populations.

    Educational programs reviewed in later chapters suggest that such interventions can work in community programs. But more experimental evaluation studies of such interventions are needed. Interestingly, many intervention studies have used school academic success as the outcome and have attempted to change psychological and social characteristics in an effort to raise academic achievement.

    Some of these efforts have been quite successful in limited experimental settings e. Efforts to expand such interventions to scale have yielded more mixed results see Eccles et al.

    Nurturing Positivity: Interventions to Enhance Students’ Well-being and Learning

    In addition, more work is needed to see if these interventions can be adapted for use in programs in out-of-school hours. Finally, although several studies have documented the importance of life skills training for positive development, we know little about which particular life skills and competencies are most important for youth in different cultural, ethnic, gender, and social class settings.