We encounter psychology in our lives mainly through dysfunction. That is, people generally go to see psychologists and psychiatrists because they or others are unhappy with how they are thinking or behaving. This attention to error and correction makes most of applied psychology a kind of negative feedback process aiming to normalize thoughts and behaviors within desired tolerances. People find this psychopathological approach useful as far as it goes, but it leaves out ways of using psychology in positive feedback loops to help people achieve more than normal. Positive psychology focuses on this.
Some folks, however, take a negative view of positive psychology. From what I can surmise, they hold this view because of positive psychology’s association with self-help, life coaching, and leadership training — domains where rationalization can often pass for explanation and hucksters can operate as long as they are sufficiently charismatic. And although plenty of folks are working on evidence-based self-help and other scientific personal development methodologies, the guilt-by-association seems sufficient for some people to dismiss the field. Yet I and others have found tremendous value in our lives by looking at such topics as esteem, psychological development, and meaning through the lens of positive psychology. If all that holds some people back from believing in the usefulness of positive psychology is that its sometimes use in cons, then we can advise that they should, as always, practice epistemic hygiene and not confuse correlation for causation.
But even acknowledging the theoretical validity of positive psychology, some folks still object that its techniques don’t seem to work, at least not for themselves and not for their friends. To this point, it seems likely that positive psychology only works for the sufficiently privileged because they uniquely have the luxury of being able to spend time and energy on self actualization. Put another way, if you’re too busy surviving, you don’t have time for positive psychology and even if you did it’s not likely to help because it’s not your primary constraint. This seems to neatly explain much of why people, after controlling for scams and bullshit, still have varying success with positive psychology.
But I think there is something left unexplained. Among those for whom positive psychology works, some specific techniques will work and others will not. We could just chalk this up to the typical mind fallacy (a special case of the mind projection fallacy), but in doing so I think we ignore the chance to see deep patterns in exchange for the surface-level results. Sure, not every technique may work for every person, but for all persons some techniques should work. Can we find a pattern that would both explain the results of positive psychology and account for cases where specific techniques don’t work?
A General Mechanism of Personal Development
I think we can find such a pattern, and that pattern covers more than just positive psychology — it covers all of personal development and catches positive psychology in its net as a necessary consequence. That’s because personal development, as we will construe it here, includes anything that takes a person from less to more of who they want to be. Sometimes this involves psychotherapy and psychiatry to address psychopathologies, but it also involves positive psychology after a person is already descriptively, statistically normal (as opposed to the prescriptive use of “normal” that people mean when they talk about social norms and idealized behaviors).
Because I know post-formal developmental psychology best, let’s start looking there for a pattern of personal development. Post-formal developmental models posit psychological development after brains reach physical maturity, which Piaget identified as the formal stage. Erikson, Kegan, and others have investigated post-formal development, and Commons has given an account of developmental psychology that unifies pre- and post-formal stages in a functional, eliminative model. Commons shows that behaviors that characterize these stages must be mastered and applied to perform behaviors in subsequent stages. This means that each stage must, in some way, support development into the next stage.
Commons theory has a strong mathematical bent, but it essentially says that stages are differentiated and hierarchical because each stage builds on the behaviors of the previous one by combining them in nontrivial ways to enable behaviors that were impossible within the previous stage. This matches the traditional, phenomenological view in developmental psychology that stages correspond to increasing ontological complexity without the need to lean on intention. Commons further shows that development requires a period of confusion where existing behaviors may be combined in unproductive ways in an effort to search the space for useful combinations. This is followed by a period of integration where new behavior combinations are practiced, culminating in solidification of new behavior patterns at the next stage.
Noteworthy is that during development from one stage to another a person is likely to make “mistakes” they wouldn’t have made were they not trying new behavioral combinations. This relates to Bateson’s notion of play and the need for safety explicated by Kegan’s conception of holding environment. Safety is a matter of providing physical and psychological space to explore thoughts and behaviors free from fear. Physical security, secure attachment, high esteem, and competence all play roles in creating such a safe environment because, without these many facets of safety, people take on defensive stances to protect themselves from perceived harm. Such stances may be prudent, but they inhibit exploration, learning, and experimentation, and so can retard development. Thus the privilege seemingly needed to successfully apply positive psychology is a manifestation of access to safety, a state that many people unfortunately cannot find themselves in.
So to summarize what is happening, development starts from a place of integration, followed by disintegration into confusion, which through active efforts at reintegration in a safe space results in development. If a safe space for reintegration is not available, development may not proceed. Metaphorically this is similar to muscle growth by weight lifting, where the muscle is initially whole, is torn by the stress of lifting weight, and then rebuilds the damaged, weakened muscle stronger than before when supplied with sufficient nutrients and rest. We can think of this process graphically as a line that dips and then rebounds higher than it started.
This seems certainly a model of personal development assuming growth of the sort examined by developmental psychology, especially since it heavily mirrors Kegan and Lahey’s four-column model of psychological development from Immunity to Change, is similar to the patterns observed by fellow Medium writers (cf. Jonathan Cottrell’s “Equation for Personal Growth” and Brad Stulberg’s “The Growth Equation”), and even looks an awful lot like the dual of one iteration of Boyd’s OODA loop. But what of personal development more generally. Does this pattern hold or break?
The General Mechanism of Change
It seems trivial to show that this disintegration-reintegration model does not generically hold in personal development. Consider how we usually construe development of self-esteem. People talk about upward and downward spirals of self-esteem, pointing to a simple positive feedback loop without the one-step-backwards-two-steps-forwards pattern of developmental psychology. There’s no obvious disintegration, confusion, or reintegration here, so I guess that’s it.
Only, how does the positive feedback loop of self-esteem — or any other feedback loop for that matter — ratchet forward? Feedback requires passing information about a system back into itself and using that information to affect future states of the system. We generically refer to this as “updating”, and we know the general pattern of updating well. It goes by many names — entropy, intention, causation, and simply change— but its most rarefied form is perhaps Bayes’ Theorem and it is The Pattern behind everything that moves.
To explain, imagine you are in a a fixed, initial state called the prior. New information appears that muddies the waters, so the speak, because the new information does not exactly match the prior. Bayes’ Theorem tells us the optimal way to resolve the confusion, and we use this to integrate the new information with the prior to achieve a new fixed state called the posterior. As you may notice, this is a familiar story: we go from integration (prior) to disintegration (transmission of new information) to confusion (knowledge of new information) to reintegration (application of Bayes’ Theorem) to a new, more complete state of integration (posterior). In this light it seems the pattern of personal development given above is nothing more than another instantiation of The Pattern, so even if my pattern does not quite describe how all personal development happens, it is only because it is an overly specific version of the universal pattern of change.
This is perhaps disappointing to some, because it seems that the pattern I have seen in personal development is just the same pattern we see everywhere. But this is also exciting because it informs us more of the deep connectedness of the universe. I don’t mean that as some kind of hippy-dippy appeal to monism — although I personally interpret The Pattern as identifying with the Dao — but rather as part of the great project of integrating our understanding towards a maximally parsimonious approach. I am encouraged to find that, in a topic as complex as human thought, the Dao reverberates deeply through it.