First developed in the 1970s by the clinical psychologist Peter Lewinsohn as a way to help people work through depression, apathy and negative moods, behavioral activation is based on the idea that action can create motivation, especially when you’re in a rut.
To be clear, this is not about trying to think positive thoughts, a mantra that became a pillar of the self-esteem movement last century, with mega-best-selling books such as 1952’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” arguing — we now know, falsely — that if you just think positive thoughts and suppress negative ones you’ll gain health, wealth and happiness. If anything, research has shown that those strategies often backfire: The more you try to change how you feel, the more stuck in your current mood you’re likely to end up. As much as you might want to, you cannot control your thoughts or feelings.
The challenge with behavioral activation is mustering enough energy to start acting on the things that matter to you: Make that phone call, schedule that walk with friends, write that email, get off social media and start on the creative project you’ve been procrastinating on. This may sound simple, but when you are languishing, simple does not mean easy.
But a mind-set shift can be a powerful tool. When you feel down, unmotivated or apathetic, you can give yourself permission to feel those feelings, but not dwell on them or take them as destiny. Instead, you shift the focus to getting started with what you have planned in front of you, taking your feelings, whatever they may be, along for the ride. Doing so gives you the best chance at improving your mood.
It can be helpful to think of this initial umph as activation energy. Sometimes we need more and sometimes we need less. For many of us, even the little things require more these days, and that’s OK. It won’t be like this forever. If anything, the more we get going, the easier it becomes. Just like rest and languishing can create inertia that builds on itself, action and energy can be self-reinforcing. It just takes some extra work to overcome the initial stasis and friction — it can feel like the laws of physics apply to our psyches, too.