14 Aug 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Christmas is a time for gifts, but give yourself a present too

IN the run-up to Christmas, the questions of what to buy for our loved ones or indeed where and how to purchase are uppermost in many people’s minds.

As early as November we now have Black Friday and Cyber Monday, recent additions to the traditional Christmas shopping date of December 8. The custom of giving gifts most likely originates from firstly the gift of Christ that God gave the world. Furthermore, the presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the three wise men to honour the newborn baby Jesus, also remind us of the importance of celebrating with presents. So at this time of year, many of us buy things for others to show them we love them and possibly to thank them for being there for us all year round.

And of course, Saint Nicholas and more lately Santa Claus, the most well-known present givers of all, present gifts as rewards to children for having been good all year.

In psychology, traditionally the Behaviourists used rewards as a way to shape behaviours in both animals and humans. In 1938, B.F. Skinner (probably one of the most famous Behaviourists) introduced the term “operant conditioning” to explain how we can reward and reinforce a behaviour, increasingly the likelihood that it will recur. Modern day psychology continues to use principles such as operant conditioning in order to help shape behaviour.

For example, when working with children and families, most psychologists will at some point utilise an old reliable tool, the star chart. The simplest application of the star chart is that the child achieves a star for completing a certain behaviour/task. When a certain number of stars are collected by the child, they can be exchanged for a reward that has been pre-agreed by parents and child.

For example, if the goal is to get the child to start and complete homework within a certain time frame every day, a star could be awarded each evening upon completion of said homework. By Friday the child may have a maximum of four or five stars and these can be exchanged for a trip to the local sweet shop or whatever else appeals (within reason!).

As a clinician working with primarily adults, rewards can also come in useful. Take the client who is seeking psychological support and therapy for managing weight loss. Small goals towards the ultimate one are rewarded as achieved. A visit to the local sweet shop would not be the reward of choice in this instance however. Something like a new item of clothing or a pair of running shoes could be a very appropriate incentive to keep going.

Similarly, in terms of promoting mental fitness, treats and rewards can be really important. If you promise yourself a reward for completing a task that you have been putting off for a long time – typically one that causes worry even contemplating it, such as finishing a report or tidying a cupboard or a room – then you are much more likely to be motivated. Rewards and treats feel good, and so in addition they can make us happier. Treats and rewards can also help change a behaviour that you do not like.

In a hospital setting we have worked with patients who wanted to quit smoking. We have usually found that the health and psycho/social benefits of quitting (not to mention the financial) are usually rewards enough in themselves for quitting.

Compassion focussed therapy (CFT) is a relatively new branch of psychological therapy that also alludes to the importance of using rewards in order to be compassionate towards oneself. The founder of CFT, an eminent UK-based professor of clinical psychology, Paul Gilbert, has provided evidence-based research that being compassionate towards oneself is necessary for healthy neurological as well as psychological functioning.

Compassion is not self-indulgent, it is not as simple as being nice to yourself. In fact, sometimes being compassionate to yourself means taking the tougher option. For example, taking the difficult step of leaving a long-term relationship that you know is not good for you. If we are experiencing distress in our lives, CFT urges us to concentrate on thoughts and activities that can help soothe our busy minds. This may mean taking some time out, going on a holiday or just treating ourselves more kindly.

One of the most important elements of CFT and one that we focus on a lot in our practices with clients is the harm that self-criticism does to us mentally. Gilbert’s evidence (amongst others) tells us that self-criticism is highly correlated with depression for instance. When we ruminate on our anxiety, low mood or anger - this practice of going over and over the same thoughts in a way that is based on fear – we just lock in these negative feelings. Gilbert urges that we replace self-criticism with self-compassion. If instead we can focus our thoughts and feelings on being supportive, helpful and caring towards ourselves and keep practising this attitude, then our feelings of threat and stress will eventually start to recede. This is imperative to managing psychological distress. Hence, kindness and compassion is something that our brains need to develop and maintain psychological well-being. If we are feeding our minds a diet of negative, self-critical thoughts, we are stimulating scary feelings of threat, anxiety, worry, anger and so on. And as the Behaviourists recognised nearly a century ago, the more we do this, the more we ensure the same outcome.

This Christmas more than ever is a time for self-compassion. Two years into a global pandemic, we have all, young and old, been impacted by Covid-19. We have met 2020 and 2021 with resilience and persistence in the face of adversity and a certain amount of acceptance given the frustrating and changing demands of the virus. Self-compassion can help us move forward into 2022 with the same attitude, focus and energy. This can ultimately lead to better mental fitness and health – and especially at Christmas time, it is hard to put a price on these rewards.

Julie O’Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.

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