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European positive psychology conference in Amsterdam: self-determination, positive aging, and the economic crisis (4th post)

I have already written three blog posts about early July's 7th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Amsterdam ... firstly on pre-conference workshops "Positive supervision and positive relationships", then on "Love, national happiness comparison tables, & life satisfaction assessment" and most recently on "What proportion of well-being is genetically determined?" After lunch on the first full day of the conference, I was faced with choosing from fifteen different workshops, symposia & paper sessions. I picked a "paper session" on "Self-determination theory (S-DT)". S-DT is a bit of a passion of mine ... absolutely central to my clinical and personal understanding of eudaimonia, well-being & positive psychology. Clicking on "self-determination" in this website's "tag cloud" brings up nearly thirty or so blog posts & other entries, including the straightforwardly named "Self-determination theory" which gives links to a number of relevant handouts. Despite my enthusiasm, or maybe partly because of it, I found this paper session rather disappointing. We had four presentations. The first was about a really rather interesting sounding research study on couples, but it still seemed to be in the design stage and we weren't given any actual results ... tantalising & a bit frustrating. Then there was a presentation linking autonomous motivation & appreciative inquiry. Interesting but, for me, not particularly "solid" ... although I did enjoy a quote from the photographer Jan Somers encouraging understanding through dialogue, that went something like "Wisdom is not to be found between the ears, but between the noses." A third presentation looked at integrating hedonic and eudaimonic research through longitudinal analysis. It discussed links over three years and emphasised the way these two aspects of well-being tend to be mutually supportive ... especially around relatedness (an echo of Barbara Fredrickson's earlier remark about "do-good" encouraging "feel-good" and vice-versa). Finally the behatted Frank Martela from Finland spoke on "Elements of meaning in life: Autonomy, competence, relatedness, and benevolence as the four needs of meaningfulness". He had apparently been doing this research with Richard Ryan, one of the two originators of self-determination theory. Interesting stuff suggesting that we should add benevolence to the other three extensively researched S-DT needs of autonomy, competence & relatedness. I have written to Frank to try to get hold of a copy of his slides and the benevolence scale that he and Ryan have developed. It fits in well with a book that I read during the conference and in the airport/on the plane on my way home ... Alan Grant's "Give and take". The next port of call after the "Self-determination" session was another one out of fifteen choice ... this time I selected a symposium on "Positive aging as a function of self-perceptions of aging and dying". Three of the four presenters were from the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. They shared interesting work. The symposium began with the non-Bar-Ilan researcher, Yuvai Palgi, speaking about a study involving 1073 older subjects entitled "How do subjective age and subjective closeness to death interact in regulating self-rated successful aging?" The take-home message seems to be that we tend to feel considerably younger than our biological age (typically about 13 years younger) and we tend to over-estimate how long we're likely to live ... and that both these "distortions" seem to promote more successful (self-rated) aging. Ah, the power of positive illusions! Actually, in defence of these so-called positive illusions, Palgi pointed out that actuarial tables typically only take into account age & gender, whereas subjective estimates of how much longer one is going to live take in a much more complex web of information. Further presentations covered "The will to live and subjective life expectancy in older adults", "Can ageists age successfully? Age and death anxieties are negatively related to self rated successful aging through ageism" and "Attachment patterns moderate the relationship between subjective closeness to death and meaning in life." The second study here on "ageism" reminds me of how typical it is that members of groups who are judged negatively in broader society (for any of a large number of reasons e.g. gender, mental health, sexual preference, race, employment status, disability, age, and so on) ... that members of these groups can unconsciously internalise these prejudices against themselves. There is much research on this, for example "On the self-stigma of mental illness: stages, disclosure, and strategies for change" and "The relationship between experiences of discrimination and mental health among lesbians and gay men: An examination of internalized homonegativity and rejection sensitivity as potential mechanisms." Happily the commonness of this phenomenon means that there has been a good deal of interest in how to counteract these internalised self-prejudices ... and this work would almost certainly have relevance too to those struggling with self-ageist prejudice ... see, for example "Empirical studies of self-stigma reduction strategies: A critical review of the literature." Interestingly forms of writing can be helpful here ... a fact that I find helpful to remember in my work as a therapist when helping people with self-stigma ... see, for example "Expressive writing for gay-related stress: psychosocial benefits and mechanisms underlying improvement" and "Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions". The last paper in the symposium on attachment patterns and aging actually triggered my interest most because of a throwaway line from the presenter about the particularly toxic long-term effects of avoidant attachment patterns. This was news to me so I approached the lecturer, Yoav Bergman, at the end of the talk to ask about the evidence underlying his statement. He cited a book he said he & colleagues treated somewhat like a "bible" in their field ... Mikulincer & Shaver's 2007 publication "Attachment in adulthood: structure, dynamics, and change". Well I went ahead and ordered a copy of the book. It's great, but I'm still not a lot wiser about why Bergman made his remark. I've emailed him to take the topic a bit further. Possibly he bases his comment on the finding that anxious attachment styles seem to have a tendency to diminish somewhat as we age, whereas avoidant styles seem to persist more enduringly. It will be interesting to see if he replies and what he has to say further about this issue. And then, after a coffee break, on to the day's closing keynote lecture "Economic crisis, wellbeing & sustainability" given by a pair of presenters, Dora Gudmundsdottir & Nic Marks. Nic quoted the Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz's clear warning "What you measure affects what you do. If you don't measure the right thing, you don't do the right thing." And if you want this point underlined with clear, deeply thought through detail, see the 291 page Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi paper "Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance & social progress". Nic & Dora's presentation was an important part in a rich strand running through the whole conference which focused on national & world issues that emerge when we start to question how we can encourage wellbeing globally. Wonderful to be at a conference where there are fine presentations and discussion spanning genetics, individuals, organizations, nations & the world. For the fifth & final blog post about this excellent Positive Psychology conference, see "Flourishing, science backbone & harmonious or obsessive passion".

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