The Adaptive Living Equation

A formula for adaptive living.

Posted May 19, 2016

What you said to me last session really made an impact. I realized through it that I need to get clear about my values. The people who I admire, who are psychologically healthy, are clear about their values and are living their lives in accordance with them.

I define adaptive living as the process by which one realistically maximizes their valued states of being, given who they are and the situation they find themselves in. And as I hear my clients’ stories, I listen to their narratives use the adaptive living equation to serve as a guide to the direction our work will take. The above is a quote from a patient who had a key insight about the importance of living in accordance with his values after a session in which we had explored how conflicted and confused he was about how he wanted to be. I share this because it is not uncommon in the course of therapy to realize that the individual has not thought deeply about how they want to be. They have an idea about how they are (e.g., anxious, shy, lonely), about what is happening to them (e.g., they are being treated poorly or life keeps interfering with their immediate goals), and about what they don’t like or want (e.g., to be in distress, to be low status). Embedded in these desires are some inkling of how they want to be, but it is not framed in a way that is clear or promotes growth toward what they will become. 

As such, it is very common in therapy to try to systematically attend to one's vision for adaptive living. This is constructing a vision of what Alfred Adler called the constructive lifestyle. The way I approach it can be represented as follows in a quasi-mathematical formula:

R max VSB given f(P, E)

The adaptive living equation points us toward considering the following four elements:

1. R max VSB = Realistically Maximize One's Valued States of Being. This refers to what the individual values and why. Values can arise from many different places such as morality and ethics, one’s life philosophy, religious perspectives, talents and achievements, relationships, and so forth. This is an area that is underdeveloped for many folks and it is not uncommon to spend a good deal of time in therapy exploring various value systems and considering various possible ways of being and wondering about which is more valued and why. People want to “be happy” or “not be miserable”, but folks often don’t understand that these feeling states are emotional indicators of one’s needs and goals. I often focus on helping people imagine helpful or admirable role models and ways of being that would make them feel proud. I also help them sort out the difference between what they truly value and what they believe others think they should value.

2. P = Person. This refers to the individual’s working understanding of human nature, of individual differences, and of their own unique personality. I am particularly concerned here with their understanding of the domains of consciousness (experiential, private, and public) and core needs/motives/emotions such as relational value. And I hope that they understand their unique developmental trajectory and how it has given rise to their capacities, identities, traits and so forth. I often break down their understanding into the following domains of adaptation: 1) habits and lifestyles; 2) emotions and emotional functioning; 3) relationship quality and interpersonal style; and 4) identity and coping. We can discuss how the person is and how they came to be in each of these domains and then think about in which ways are they functioning adaptively and which ways are they not.

3. E = Environment. This refers to the current environment, which can be divided into social/relational elements (peers, lovers, cultural identities) and material elements and resources (noise, toxins, money, technology etc). We can explore what areas of the environment have resources and that can meet needs and afford them opportunities for future growth and what areas are stressful and barren.

 4. f = function of. Those familiar with psychology will recognize that the back half of the adaptive equation is Kurt Lewin’s formula for thinking about human behavior; which is that human behavior is a function of the Person and the Environment. Although we can conceptually separate the individual from the environment, it also is the case that in the real world individual exists within in environmental system such that to understand human behavior, we must understand them in dynamic relation to one another. Thus, we must think about the fit between the individual and the environment they find themselves in. I further like to divide the function of person-environment into the three broad domains of time, that of past, present and future. What elements of the past have had a powerful impact on the current situation (and one’s character), how does one “be” in the moment, and how does one identify future pathways that could move one toward more Valued States of Being.

A key ingredient toward mental health is a model of what mental health looks like. The adaptive living equation attempts to formalize the key ingredients that go into formulating a picture of mental health. This is essential in psychotherapy because it points to what the work is moving toward (as opposed to just thinking about symptom reduction and what it is moving away from).