In my year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program from 2005 to 2006, I learned a lot about the theories the undergird the science of happiness, success, motivation and optimism. One of the most important ones I was exposed to was about “self-efficacy theory,” pioneered by Stanford University’s Albert Bandura.
Self-efficacy, which some also call self-confidence, is one of the qualities often exhibited by happy people. If you have high self-efficacy, you believe that you can accomplish whatever goals you set for yourself, and that even if you don’t know exactly what to do, you’ll find something – a book, resources, video, people, etc – that will help you figure it out. It makes sense that people who believe they can succeed in life would be happier than people who don’t feel that way because you will always see yourself as the architect of your own fate.
There are four ways to build up the muscle of self-efficacy if your store is low or non-existent, and I often quote these to clients as we search for ways they can get more of this important quality. The four ways Bandura found could raise self-efficacy are:
- Handle stress effectively. People who don’t get overwhelmed by challenging situations and who find ways to disengage from what is upsetting them, are more able to remain focused on what they want to accomplish.
- Have a “persuasive other” in their environment. People with high self-efficacy have someone they trust – a mentor, grandparent, teacher, counselor – in their lives. These people believe in our potential and abilities, and because we trust their judgment, we are able to believe in ourselves more easily, too.
- Experience mastery. When you aren’t sure if you can get something done, the best way to build confidence is to find ways to have small “wins” or mastery experiences in the areas that are important to you.
- Find role models. Self-confident people always have people in their environment, or in their mind’s eye, who exhibit the behaviors – or have accrued the successes – that we seek for ourselves. As we say in the goal-setting world: “You can’t hit a target you can’t see,” and role models give us something to shoot for.
One of the turning points for me in my recovery from my eating disorder was meeting someone who openly shared how she had been able to change her life. “My name is Betsy and I am recovering from bulimia one day at a time,” she said one formative night in 1984. At that time I was trying to get past my bulimia, and I was going to numerous self-help meetings to find hope and inspiration with this goal. Betsy’s sentence marked the first time I’d ever heard anyone publicly state that she was recovering from a disorder that few people knew how to treat. She instantly became my role model, and in doing so, she gave me hope.
Role models can come in many shapes and sizes. They can be from literature, film and stage. They can be alive or dead. They can be in our current circle or we may never meet them. The important thing is that we have a picture in our head of how we want to behave, and when we need guidance in moving ahead, we do what that person would do.
Some of the people who captured my imagination when I was young included the plucky teen detective Nancy Drew and Mary Poppins, who created a blend of magic, unpredictability, fun and discipline in her dealings as a British nanny. Nancy Drew was courageous, unflappable and didn’t quit when she had a mystery to solve. I think having her moxie in my head undoubtedly played a part in how I continued to fight my eating disorder, refusing to let it win whenever my spirit flagged.
Who are your role models and how have they impacted what you have done in life? And do you have some major goals that could use some fresh role models?