Welcome Noel Lyons,
you have been a professional member of the toolkit developers team for a few months now. Why did you decide to join our team?
The Internet is awash with cleverly marketed techniques, services and programs targeting those with a desire to improve themselves and/or their personal or working lives. However, few are supported by real science! Being a voracious reader of the PosPsy literature, I am only too aware of all the valuable evidence-based knowledge that is now available that needs to get out there more.
Hence I see the great work you have started which also serves to enrich the PosPsy profession at large. This fitted neatly with what I had in mind too: Creating robust tools & programs to help raise overall levels of personal wellbeing across local communities and workplaces worldwide.
What is it about Positive Psychology that attracts you to it?
Ever since I was given the Tony Robbins book “Awaken The Giant” to read whilst backpacking around the world some 30 years ago, I’ve been driven towards a better understanding of why people do what they do (and don’t do what they want to do). I’ve since read literally 100’s of books on personal development / self-improvement and the rise of Pos Psy over the last 15-20 years has only served to deepen my understanding of the fundamental principles behind the allure of the self-help movement.
Accordingly, I’m a firm believer that we all have an innate duty to take proactive ownership of ourselves and of our lives / careers which should then (via contagion theory) inspire others to do the same. As Jim Rohn said: “Never wish life were easier, wish that you were better”!
You have been a competitive age-group triathlete for quite some time. Has positive psychology helped you in sport? If so, how?
You might think that a positive mood state can predict athletic success, right? Indeed this was the premise behind my only published research paper: Modelling mood states in athletic performance. Cockerill IM1, Nevill AM, Lyons N. (1991) J Sports Sci. 9(2):205-12. However, the results were not replicated in further studies. So if anything it has been the reverse; what years of competing in triathlons have taught me that has relevance to the application of Pos Psy today.
To be at your best physically, you have to manage and direct your lifestyle. I understand it’s not about trying to pack more in, but about better prioritisation and design of our everyday habits. How we move, eat, sleep, rest, relax and play has considerable significance in how we think, feel and perform each day. Research now reveals exercise strengthens working memory / creativity whilst reducing stress / anxiety and is effective in shifting our mood upwards whilst protecting against accelerated ageing.
The Mediterranean Diet has also been scientifically shown to enhance attention and lower depression. We are also seeing an increase in studies on sleep, meditation, mindfulness, relaxation and play with similar positive results. This increases the range of options available to clients and offers a more complete therapeutic model to better match the more complex challenges of modern day.
What is the greatest lesson you have gained from Positive Psychology?
“The Guns of Navarone” is a classic film based on a true tale of heroism during wartime. There’s a quote in that film where the commanding officer quips:
“Anything can happen in a war. Slap in the middle of absolute insanity, people pull out the most extraordinary resourcefulness, ingenuity, courage, self-sacrifice.”
Orison Swett Marden also said:
“Every man is a stranger to his greatest strength, his mightiest power, until the test of a great responsibility, a critical emergency, or a supreme crisis in his life, calls it out.”
For me, this is the true essence of Pos Psy. We all possess more resilience, resourcefulness and creativity than can ever be realised in one lifetime.
Sonja Lyubomirsky in the “How of Happiness” inferred the same. She gave her #1 Pos Psy practise as the “Best Possible Self” diary method in keeping with Maslow’s self-actualization theory. I believe this is because the benefits of daily practise accrue over time like compound interest. The earlier you start applying Pos Psy practises in life, the more benefits you stand to reap and the more you stand to reach into your unlimited potential. This style of thinking is also harmonious with Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden & build / upward spiral theory.
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching and the greatest things can happen.”– Pete Carroll
Unfortunately the same principle can operate in the opposite direction; e.g. “drifting”! The longer the time you “drift”, the more challenging life is likely to become. So my greatest lesson is do not passively keep Pos Psy practises for when you might need them; start actively building your psychological capital reserves today. Constantly be reaching for your best possible (most authentic) self, in order to meet life’s challenges squarely and to continue to flourish and thrive!
What do you believe is your strongest contribution to the development of the toolkit?
Maybe that I have a practical, client-orientated bias in how I view Pos Psy? By that, I mean I finished my Masters degree in Exercise & Health Science (Bristol University) 20 years ago this year! That’s a long time and there is a saying:
“Education is what you remember long after you have forgotten what you were taught”.
So I can look at Pos Psy through an academic/scientific lens but always filter by asking: “What are the key takeaways here?” I am constantly scanning for what could make all the difference to someone or to advancements in how I (and others can) operate. That comes from 28 years of helping people make positive changes in their life and wellbeing. It’s only by working with real people that you learn what’s relevant, digestible and readily applicable in the real world. It’s what clients most want too; they are already feeling bombarded and overloaded by often conflicting messages and demands.
Can you tell us about the first tool you developed: “Implementation Intentions”?
It comes from experience. Stepping out for a run or cycle when it’s cold, dark or when I simply don’t feel like it. The core idea is that you plan your day or week ahead when both your motivation and willpower are high. You then consider any obstacles that may arise and deal with them then and there in your head. That’s it. It then becomes a non-negotiable; you just do it. Habits always win out!What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
I don’t overly plan anymore. I simply follow industry trends and look to stay open to smarter, faster ways of achieving objectives I set for myself. This could translate as multiple paths I could follow or opportunities that arise that fit with my mission. Saying that, I constantly set standards and intentions for myself to grow into such as writing several books and online courses this year!
Plus I check in with myself in the morning, during exercise sessions and at night to reflect. Overall though, I take the long-term view that if I keep going to work on myself, showing up each day as my most authentic “higher” self and adding value to others, then everything will work out fine (eventually!).
If you could give positive psychology practitioners any advice, what would it be?
1) Beware there are pitfalls in being too “technique-orientated” as a practitioner. When you put all your faith in a technique and the client doesn’t get the promised outcome, it can damage the client’s belief in their ability to shift. It can leave them thinking that either you or they are to blame! People (being emotional, irrational, situational etc) will vary in how well they respond to any technique. It’s the “one size rarely fits all” principle. So retain a little faith in human ingenuity and your own intuition. There’s an art to knowing which tool, when and for who it suits best!
2) An over-emphasis on research or no evidence of any research is equally problematic. The scientific process works via building blocks. Each study in itself is incomplete but collectively informs “current understanding”. Best practise in therapeutic interventions is both an art and a science. What is learnt in application and popularised may wait to be confirmed by science.
Yes it’s important today, as a professional, to be able to support your methods and techniques with science. Clients deserve the certainty and the results that come with that. But the art side – the relational, therapeutic skills are vital too e.g. rapport, caring, genuine, open listening etc. So yes draw on the research but try not to become too mired in it. Cultivate coaching, helping and motivational interviewing skills too.
3) As professional practitioners, we should showcase the same qualities we espouse: Resilience, resourcefulness, positivity, compassion, gratitude etc. Yet the exact inner resources to be mined inside us are as unique as each one of us is individual. Hence it is up to each one of us to both find and nurture them. So stay curious, run small experiments and determine which combination of positive practices work best for you. It makes us better, stronger, more credible teachers!
4) Just how valuable is it to single out various (somewhat nebulous) components like happiness, gratitude, compassion as being more significant than another? More helpful to me are aggregated models that offer clients richer, more resourceful ways of viewing themselves and their world. The idea here being that multiple activities may prove more effective than engaging in any one activity?
For instance, frameworks like SPIRE, HERO, PERMA, ORANGES, BROADEN & BUILD (UPWARD SPIRAL), Self-Determination Theory etc. These models then serve as various lens to try on, to test, to tweak (modify) and subsequently through which to strengthen a person’s overall mental and emotional agility. That really is the key is it not: The vision to see multiple possible pathways of action; the ability to hold (and be comfortable with) multiple perspectives; the flexibility to grow and evolve through life?
5) Studying Neuroscience has proved invaluable for myself in furthering my knowledge of how the brain and bodymind work, in particular how various components work together or underlying mechanisms might work. Knowing something on an experiential level outperforms knowing something on an intellectual level. Intuitively, I can pick up and comprehend pieces in a Pos Psy paper, book or article that fit with what I know from Neuroscience. The most interesting, innovative, fresh knowledge often lies at the intersection of fields. Personally, I would encourage exploring those overlaps to enhance your own capabilities as well as be of greater service to clients.
6) There’s tremendous value in getting clients to commit to consistency of practise rather than believing in quick fixes. Given that our brains are highly plastic, we are constantly reinforcing or weakening various neural networks. Clients may experience a short-term positive effect from any intervention unless they commit longer-term. So encourage clients to keep a record of positive strategies that work for them and assist them in turning them into daily practises.
7) Finally realize the power of mindful awareness, focused concentration and deep relaxation. Sort tasks into batches, set clear boundaries, block off distractions and allow yourself regular brief breaks. Above all, make time to observe and reflect on that part of yourself harboured inside your insula and anterior cingulate (the part of your brain that balances your deep emotions with your most focused thoughts). Because knowing yourself and your ideal relationship with the world is where your prime value lies;
habitually visioning and advancing towards “your best possible self”!