Building on Strength: Present-Day Theories

Posted on July 13, 2012
Three modern day, strength-based theories are consistent with the Fountain House working community practices, in that they state or imply a need for places where people can build their motivation, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and ultimately their natural tendency for personal fulfillment.
In 1997, the psychologist Albert Bandura elaborated his concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that he has the ability to accomplish a certain task; as a person’s self-efficacy increases, he is better able to deal with insecurities related to unsuccessful past efforts. According to Bandura, the best way to improve self-efficacy is through participation in real activities as opposed to simulated ones. It’s through this participation that a person can have a successful experience (mastery), observe others successfully participating in similar activities (vicarious experience), and be inspired by others in a significant relationship (verbal persuasion).
In Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation - a prerequisite for self-actualization - requires a place: a social environment in which the nutrients for autonomy (the exercise of control and choice) relatedness (relationships with people who care) and competence (increasing self-efficacy) exist.
The third relevant incarnation is the advent of positive psychology in 2001 – a field that brings together theories and research that focus on what people need in order to live a "good life." According to positive psychology, the good life involves optimal functioning; subjective well-being; and a focus on human strengths, capacities, and resources rather than human pathology. As it relates to positive psychology and the need for supportive environments, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson wrote

"Using your signature strengths is concordant with your intrinsic interests and values; hence in a supportive environmental context the clients strengths will become evident. This does not typically happen in a prescriptive way such as having the client complete a strengths inventory, but it occurs spontaneously in the relationship."1

The Fountain House strength-based working community treatment approach predates these three modern theories, although it has in common with them all of the essential elements for human growth and development. They all state or imply the necessity of a relationship-rich place - a place that has values and offers a sense of belonging and the opportunity to model others, a place that has practices and activities that are real, not simulated, in which members can choose to participate, and - by that choice - experience success and the growth in their motivation and self-efficacy.

In addition to offering adults with serious mental illness a sense of belonging, the Fountain House treatment approach breaks new ground by creating a situation in which they are needed to participate in all of the essential practices and activities of the community. When you relate to a person’s need to be needed, you celebrate humanity, confer dignity, and emphasize belonging. It both supports and fosters self-respect, and because of the mutual need and mutual gratitude expressed, produces equity in the professional relationship.  

Seligman, M.E.  Positive Psychology:  Fundamental Assumptions.  The Psychologist 16, p. 126-127. 

Julius Lanoil
Education and Wellness Consultant, Fountain House



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