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Proactive Coping: A Strategy for Self-regulation and Enhanced Well-being

Competencies you need to beat stress and enhance well-being.

Master Ugway to Master Shifu: "One often meets one's destiny while on the road taken to avoid it." A research article soon to be published in Personality and Individual Differences provides empirical evidence for Master Ugway's wisdom. Aspiring for a positive future, as opposed to coping by trying to avoid a negative future, predicts well-being. Two key competencies are central to this finding.

Our daughter's favorite movie is Kung Fu Panda. Needless to say, we've watched it many times. It is a great metaphor for the research I summarize here, but it's not essential to have seen the movie to understand the research. As Master Shifu might say, "You're free to read!"

The stress was obvious to everyone when Master Shifu learned of Tia Lung's escape from prison. Shifu did everything he could to avoid this, but it was only when he had faith and trained Po to "fulfill his destiny," did the story unfold in a way that brought Shifu peace. And so it goes in our own lives it seems.

Stephanie Jean Sohl and Anne Moyer (Stony Brook University, New York) have an article "in press" in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences. The focus is on self-regulatory behavior with a twist. It's not self-regulation in relation to an ongoing stressor. It's a future-oriented approach known as proactive coping.

Proactive coping comes in two forms in terms of how it's been measured. In one case, it's been labeled proactive coping with items like "I try to pinpoint what I need to succeed" (the "resource accumulation" part of coping). In the other case, it's been labeled preventive coping with items such as "I plan for future eventualities."

Drawing on Master Shifu's response to Tia Lung's escape, we see him use both. Shifu begins with preventive coping, sending the duck to "double the guard, double everything" to keep Tia Lung in prison. Unsuccessful as this was, he then turns to Master Ugway's wisdom and pinpoints what he needs to succeed - a Dragon Warrior (and he figures out a way to train the panda that fit who the panda was - certainly an example of using feedback on the initial efforts to shape a more successful approach).

Their Study
Sohl and Moyer measured students' proactive and preventive coping, as well as optimism when the students were anticipating an upcoming exam. This was a future stress, much like the potential escape of Tia Lung (and for some, every bit as scary ☺). They also measured the participants' well-being in terms of affect, life satisfaction and physical symptoms. They hypothesized that proactive coping would predict well-being above and beyond the effects of being optimistic.

The main findings
Using a sophisticated Structural Equation Modelling approach, they conducted a meditational analysis to see if proactive competency accounted for the relation between the two forms of proactive coping and well-being. These competencies included: Use of resources, future appraisal, realistic goal setting and use of feedback. The realistic goal setting competency was one variable that really interested me in this study, and it turns out to be an important competency in coping with future stressors.

What they found overall was:

  1. Optimism is a strong predictor of well-being as found in numerous other studies.
  2. The relation between proactive coping and well-being is mediated by two of the proactive competencies - use of resources and realistic goal setting.

The authors summarize their findings by writing
"In summary, the action of the self-regulatory strategy proactive coping is most accurately described by the first conceptualization . . . whereby Proactive Coping 1 was significantly associated with all of the mechanisms proposed in the theoretical framework. Additionally, this conceptualization of proactive coping's unique variance associated with Well-being was completely explained by use of resources and realistic goal setting whereas the remaining variance was accounted for by the first factor optimism. Overall, this demonstrated that aspiring for a positive future rather than preventing a negative one is distinctly predictive of well-being. . . " (p. 5, in press manuscript, emphasis added).

Implications for our understanding of self-regulation
Kung Fu Panda movie buffs - Do you remember when Po tried to run away from the Jade Palace? Master Shifu caught him on the stairs and told him that it was his destiny to become the Dragon Warrior. Po challenged Shifu saying, "Even if it takes Tia Lung a hundred years to get here, how are you going to change this [pointing at himself] into the Dragon Warrior?" Of course, Master Shifu said he didn't know. In time, however, he figured it out.

Master Shifu used the resources at hand - Po's willingness to work for food! (he eats when he's stressed) - with realistic goal setting to proactively cope with the future stress of Tia Lung's arrival by creating the Dragon Warrior - the unassuming big fat panda. There's a message here for all of us.

As we face the uncertainty and stress of the future, our well-being depends on a positive attitude - optimism - but also our ability to proactively cope by building the resources we need to succeed within a plan based on realistic goals. These competencies for successful self-regulation and goal pursuit are also fundamental to our well-being.

As the authors note in their closing comments of the paper,
"Finally, these results imply that interventions aiming to strengthen the benefits of proactive coping should focus on promoting resources and realistic goal setting. Altering these competencies is more feasible than directly changing proactive coping, yet may eventually lead to this result" (p. 5, in press manuscript; emphasis added).

Realistic goal setting - Make it your goal. Our friendly Panda, Po, has some lessons about goal setting and goal achievement.

Sohl, S.J., & Moyer, A. Refining the conceptualization of a future-oriented self-regulatory behavior: Proactive coping. Personality and Individual Differences (2009). doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.02.013)

Blogger's note: The quotes from the movie are taken from memory. My apologies to movie buffs who spot the errors in expression. Hey, post the correction on the blog!

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