When you think of the term ‘psychologist’ what image comes to mind?
Is it an old guy with a white coat conducting experiments?
Is it some man with a grey beard telling us our hidden sexual fantasies?
Perhaps it’s a pensive woman taking notes whilst you lay on her office chaise longue?
The problem with these perceptions of psychology is that they’re dated tropes.
The Traditional View
Traditionally, the role of psychology was to identify a problem, diagnose a disorder and offer ways to treat it, using various methods. The very crux of psychological practice from the psychodynamic and cognitive behavioural perspectives is dissecting a person’s past, their associations and distress, to discover how those experiences have landed them in a state of mental disarray. Fixing a problem, was the endgame.
The faults in early understandings of mental health and the discipline of psychology were evidenced in intrusive lobotomy experiments and widespread discrimination. People were fearful of those who sought help from a psychologist and viewed them as different. They didn’t fit in. They were seen as crazy or incapable and were marginalised because of it.
Unfortunately, this stigma lives on in society today. People can be harshly judged for working with a psychologist or seeking the support of a counsellor. A taint that stops millions of people from getting the support they could benefit from for the fear of being labelled or perceived as ‘weak’.
The Positive View
Shifting the perspective on psychology can enable people to better themselves through mental training. The formal introduction of positive psychology in 1954 by Abraham Maslow, in his book Motivation and Personality, offered new ideas about human prosperity. The foundations of positive psychology are rooted in our futures. Its aims are to identify strengths and areas of improvement to allow individuals and groups to thrive. Thanks to Maslow, nurturing and amplifying skills became the primary goal.
Maslow (1954) summarised the problem with the origins of psychology:
“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half”Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality
What we now know as positive psychology can be traced all the way back to the work of 19th century American philosopher, William James. It was James who queried why some individuals were able to utilise their resources to the fullest capacity and others weren’t. His contemplation was perhaps the earliest exploration of mental optimisation; making the most of what we know and what we experience in order to thrive. James and Maslow bring to light a form of mental training that demonstrate proactivity instead of reactivity. They illustrated how we as a society, have focused too much on one side of the story, much to our own detriment and destruction. When we focus on psychological weaknesses rather than strengths, we do ourselves a disservice and it’s time for that to change.
Newer branches of psychology, like Sport and Exercise psychology have embodied the spirit of Maslow and centre their efforts on the optimisation of human potential and performance. Instead of posing the question ‘how can we fix that?’ They put forth a more welcomed dilemma ‘what can we do better/differently to achieve our best?’
The Practical View
There are many practical strategies that we can apply to display the concept of and benefit from optimisation. Three common practices are:
Most of us set goals. Some of us only at the turn of the year, some of us more often, yet still sporadically and a few of us weekly or even daily. The thing with modern goal setting though, is that people tend to focus on the end outcome and in doing so, ignore the process. The journey is what builds you and the journey is what you should focus on (learn more).
Our thoughts influence how we feel about a situation, an event or even a person. the way you feel then influences how you behave in relation to that situation. So if we think irrational or negative thoughts, we are likely to feel negative or unjustifiable emotions. In response, we are more likely to act unreasonably or display maladaptive behaviour. By being aware of this cyclical process and intervening to reorganise our thoughts and replace the harmful ones with more rational ones, we give ourselves a better chance at success (learn more).
Imagining what you want to achieve in your mind can be a powerful tool. Creating images and sensations of how it feels can heighten motivation, confidence in yourself and your ability and even allows you to plan for setbacks. A small practice, with wide-ranging rewards (learn more).
What do you notice about those practical techniques?
They all prepare you for something. They are all proactive and lead to growth in character. This is notably different from traditional methods that aim to repair something in you and react to an experience or event.
The Real World View
Let’s take the late Kobe Bryant as an example. When he was 13 he knew he wanted to be the best basketball player in the world. Those are big dreams for a young boy to have but Kobe had one thing that others in his generation lacked: a mental edge. In one interview, he revealed that he was so focused that everything he did, he did with becoming a better basketball player in mind. Whether it was listening to a podcast, reading a book, talking to Michael Jordan, he entered the interaction with the intention of leaving it with greater armoury to be better in his profession.
“when you have that viewpoint, the world becomes your library”Kobe Bryant, Interview
This is the epitome of optimisation. This is what we should be teaching and this is what we should want the overall approach to mental health to be. To strive to be our healthiest, not endeavour to remedy a problem and remain average.
Kobe didn’t wait until he had a major injury, a great loss or colossal challenge before acting and developing. He did it because he wanted to achieve his full psychological height.
The Proactive Perspective
The pandemic has seen a substantial rise in the administration of prescription medication, an increase in people seeking professional mental health advice and treatment and of course, a great loss of motivation across the nation. Whilst the ramifications of Covid-19 continue to devastate the UK and the rest of the world, it is undoubtedly a catalyst for change. We cannot continue to disregard the planning and execution of policy changes at an organisational level in education and development pathways, that magnify mental training thus preparing populations for uncomfortable change or adversity.
By integrating mental health awareness and training into schooling, vocational education and sports and performance, we take a major leap in developing holistic, well rounded individuals with the capacity to manage stress, anxiety and adapt their behaviour and function to a higher standard with the absence of any tragedy. Steering more positive outlooks on mental health begins with normalising the conversations and practices that surround it and teaching our youth about the unlimited possibilities of their own minds.
As working from home cements itself as standard practice, we have been forced into a culture of staying in. We have lost our everyday support systems, routines and environments that allowed us to flourish. These things which we once took for granted have been replaced by bedrooms that are now offices, living rooms that are now gyms and kitchens that are now the local pub. With these adjustments in lifestyle, it makes sense that what follows is culturally responsive education.
The new challenges and opportunities we are confronted with in our post-COVID world require changes in curriculum that spotlight self-care, inner drive, daily mental skills and general lifestyle management. Instructing people on routines, implementing structure, nutrition and exercise is just as, if not more important, in these times as teaching maths, English or science.
By encouraging such psychological conditioning now, we not only teach proactivity in learning and development but we become accustomed to constructive attitudes towards mental well-being. We completely reform what it means to be different.
Join the movement
Written by: Natasha Bains
Edited by: Memuna Konteh