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Application of Positive Psychology Principles

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Running Head: PERSONAL APPLICATIONS OF PTG AND SDT                        1

Posttraumatic Growth and Self-Determination Theory: Theories, Research Findings, and Personal Applications

Lee Xianlong, Mervin

The School of Positive Psychology

PERSONAL APPLICATIONS OF PTG AND SDT                                        2

Posttraumatic Growth and Self-Determination Theory: Theories, Research Findings, and Personal Applications


        While traditional psychology tends to focus on the treatment of disturbances and dysfunctions, Positive Psychology (PP) focuses on the achievement of satisfactory and fulfilling lives instead. As a branch of psychology that emphasises on using the scientific method to study and determine positive development, PP complements and extends the traditional areas of psychology that have been dominant for many decades. In this paper, I will be examining the PP principles of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) and Self-Determination Theory (SDT): their theories and research findings followed by the feasibility, and potential benefits and drawbacks of incorporating them into my personal life.

Posttraumatic Growth        

For the purpose of this paper, the term trauma is used to describe circumstances that significantly challenge or invalidate an individual’s adaptive resources, as well as his or her understanding of the world and place in it (Janoff- Bulman, 1992). Whilst trauma may lead to conditions such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD; Kessler, Sonnega, Bromet, Hughes, & Nelson, 1995), Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) identified positive psychological changes that can lead to PTG instead.

PTG is distinctive from related concepts such as resilience, hardiness, optimism, and sense of coherence, in that it refers to a change in people that’s more than an ability to resist and not be damaged by trauma; there is qualitative change in functioning that goes beyond pre-trauma levels of adaptation (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). Growth in PTG is not a direct result of trauma; it is instead the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath that determines the extent of PTG that occurs (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Calhoun and Tedeschi (1998) proposed a PTG model with key elements such as: personality characteristics, management of emotional distress, support and disclosure, rumination, distal and proximate sociocultural influences, narrative development, and life wisdom. Personal qualities such as extraversion and openness to experience may increase the probability of growth occurring. Whilst coping responses help manage the initial emotional distress, it is the degree of cognitive processing that appears to be a central element to the

PERSONAL APPLICATIONS OF PTG AND SDT                                        3

PTG process. Social influences may also have an important role through the provision of new schemas, as well as empathetic acceptance of disclosures about the trauma. Further development and modification in life narrative and general wisdom about life appear to have mutual influence with PTG. With cognitive processing and restructuring in response to the changed reality of life after trauma, an individual produces more resistant and higher order schemas that incorporate the trauma and possible future events that may be traumatic.

Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) developed the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) in order to measure the five domains of growth and quantify the experience of growth. The scale was developed from a literature review of studies conducted on persons who perceived benefits coming from trauma. After analysing the results of their own study on undergraduates, 21 items with five factors for PTGI were established and defined the major domains of PTG: appreciation of life, relating to others, personal strength, new possibilities, and spiritual change. While it remains to be seen if the five domains hold up in factor analyses of various samples of trauma survivors, it is recognised that there can be changes beyond the domains that are quite specific to the struggle with particular stressors. There is a growing body of studies that consistently show PTG reported by survivors of various physical and psychological traumas (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006; Linley & Joseph, 2004), but there have been alternative explanations that propose the perceived growth to be an outcome of distress that is self-deceptive (Maercker & Zoellner, 2004); rather than an end result, PTG is regarded as a coping process that uses “positive illusions” to help survivors counterbalance emotional distress (Taylor et al., 2000). Nevertheless, a majority of the studies show promise that trauma survivors have the potential for positive change.

Personal Applications of PTG

Trauma is often seen as a one-off event: an automobile accident, an assault, a financial disaster, a cheating spouse, etc. I often come across another sort of trauma, the kind that may be somewhat lower in intensity but goes on over an extended period of time. As a person who had to survive years of abuse, both emotional and psychological, the challenge for me was to somehow create a life worth living amidst the challenges. Even as I regained functionality as a member of society, I was further challenged to increase my well-being and life situation despite lost time and limited

PERSONAL APPLICATIONS OF PTG AND SDT                                        4

financial resources. Gradually, I realised that it wasn't enough to survive, that that which I had to endure gave me access to other resources that are less tangible; I could either choose to focus on the trauma and my scars, or on the lessons I learnt during the process. That my trauma had a greater meaning led to a shift in perspective: my past does not define me; it instead prepares me for who I am to become.

Even until this day, it is a daily exercise of disputing irrational thoughts and reframing my perspectives; PTG doesn't mean that trauma no longer hurts nor has no impact on my wellbeing, but that I can choose how to perceive what happens to me and what do I do about it. The question here is whether my perceived growth is real or a self-illusion, which I think could be addressed by constantly reviewing my life situation qualitatively and quantitatively through subjective and objective questioning.

Self-Determination Theory

SDT is an empirically-based macro-theory of human motivation, personality development, and well-being. While the concept of motivation is not new, practitioners and professionals in the past tend to view it as a unitary phenomenon that simply varied in quantity in response to either instincts (Freudian approach) or stimuli (behavioural approach). It took over a decade of studies comparing intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation before SDT was formally introduced and accepted as a sound empirical theory in the mid-1980s (Deci & Ryan, 1985a). Unlike behaviourist orthodoxy which uses rewards to condition human behaviour, SDT highlights the importance of humans' evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioural self-regulation (Ryan, Kuhl, & Deci, 1997); by supporting and satisfying the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence in a social context, people experience an increase in self-motivation, vitality and well-being.


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