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Use uplifting memories to benefit patients

March 17, 2016
by Edward Hoffman, PhD
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“The more tranquil a [person] becomes, the greater is [one’s] success, [one’s] influence, [one’s] power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the jewels of wisdom.” Especially for professionals treating persons with addictive disorders, this observation by James Allen more than a century ago remains highly relevant. As a successful British businessman turned writer, Allen was attuned to the value of equanimity in daily life, asserting, “People will always prefer to deal with [one] whose demeanor is strongly equable.”

Though it took scientists a long time to investigate human ability to maintain a positive mood, this situation is swiftly changing. It is now clear that “self-regulation,” as it is known technically, has major consequences for the individual.

Evidence from both clinical and experimental studies has linked poor self-regulation to a variety of behavioral health difficulties, including chronic anxiety, depression and addictive disorders.1,2 Daily physical well-being, such as that involving sleep quality, is also adversely affected by this deficit.3 Research has established that self-regulation comprises two different—but perhaps equally vital—skills essential for everyday flourishing: minimizing negative feelings such as anger, sadness and worry, and amplifying happiness.4

In my earlier article for Addiction Professional, I focused on the first of these aspects: the inability of many people to overcome what Sigmund Freud identified more than a century ago as “obsessive brooding,” labeled today as “rumination.”5 This article highlights the second feature of self-regulation: our capacity to create, sustain and magnify a happy mood.

Perhaps due to longstanding conceptual biases as well as grant-funding pressures, psychologists know a lot more about inadequate self-regulation than its smooth or optimal functioning. For this reason, I initiated an international study with colleagues to understand how people use cheerful memories to enhance their daily mood.

Getting into the groove

Before examining our findings and their implications for addiction counseling, let’s see what is known about positive self-regulation.

How people create a good mood for themselves is a relatively new specialty of psychology. Though its antecedents lie in cognitive dissonance theory formulated by Leon Festinger, PhD, in his famous 1950s study “When Prophecy Fails,” most of the research is less than 20 years old, and strikingly little is known about how we develop this skill. For example, there is almost no research on children’s capacity to bolster mood, possibly because most developmentalists believe that children’s mood depends mainly on short-term situational factors (“Yea! My favorite cartoon is on TV now!”).

Based on early experiences involving primary caretakers, children gradually develop strategies for coping with their emotions. Children with close, loving attachments are likely to initiate experiences that generate pleasant feelings, whereas those lacking such attachments tend to be emotionally passive or even avoidant. A study by Mary Haskett, PhD, and colleagues at North Carolina State University found that parents of physically abused children who expressed positive emotions at home (“It’s a beautiful day outside, isn’t it?”) induced better self-regulation in their preschool children’s behavior than less verbally upbeat parents.6 The presence of a warm, stable family life—particularly rooted in what Diana Baumrind, PhD, described as an authoritative parenting style—generally keeps most children in a pleasant mood.

Adolescence, of course, is very different. Research has consistently shown that the teenage years are associated with escalating rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-injury, delinquency and suicide. Young adolescents report feeling extremely happy far less often than do 5th-graders, and feeling unhappy far more often, especially in a free-floating, mildly negative way identified technically as dysphoria.7

Almost everyone who has been a teenager can remember such moods—often a mixture of vague uneasiness, resentment and irritability. For decades, best-selling books and countless magazine articles attributed such moods to adolescent envy of adult freedom. But more recently, developmental psychologists regard adolescent dysphoria as encompassing a significant longing for childhood’s comforting security and simplicity. To paraphrase fictitious adverting whiz Don Draper in a “Madmen” episode, teenagers are angry not because they’re not adults, but because their childhood is gone and they can’t get it back.

Adolescent “mood management” or “mood repair,” as labeled by researchers, has generated empirical study. Researchers have consistently found that listening to music is a primary strategy that teens employ, mainly while socially alone and wearing headphones/earbuds, to uplift their mood.7,8,9,10 In Reed Larson, PhD's view, listening to popular music “allows adolescents to internalize strong emotional images around which a temporary sense of self can cohere.”7 Certainly, there is scientific validation for the view that music enables teens to bolster their mood. In an Australian study, older teens reported listening to music an average of 17 hours a week—chiefly either to escape from boredom or to enhance a good mood. Findings also showed that listening to heavy metal was linked most to emotionally troubled teens. Yet they too reported music as psychologically beneficial.9