An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology

{Bandura, 2008. An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology. In Lopez (Ed). Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People (Vol. 1) Discovering Human Strengths}

Personal Mini-Experiments: Increasing Your Self-Efficacy

Work toward increasing your self-efficacy to increase your wellbeing.

Setting and Achieving Goals

Write three things you hope to accomplish today and a short list of ways you can achieve each goal in one day. Keep the list doable but meaningful. Check your list throughout the day and mark the tasks you accomplish. You can make this a weekly or monthly activity by keeping an ongoing list.


When faced with an obstacle, brainstorm alternate ideas to overcome that obstacle. Share your views with friends or family and ask for their input. Try using various ideas.

Reframing Thoughts

Make a conscious effort to maintain positive thoughts. If you have a negative view, reframe it to be positive.

Recognizing Your Accomplishments

Keep a journal to identify and describe what you have accomplished or have made strides in completing each day.

Applying Previous Challenges to New Experiences

If you do not achieve a goal you had hoped to, write what you learned from the experience and how you can apply it to another attempt at achieving your goal.

Agency as the Motivator of Action

Agency is the foundational concept of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986). An agent intentionally influences their functioning and the course of environmental events. The influencing is observed as acting on life circumstances and world events. One agency mechanism is the core personal efficacy belief. It is at the foundation of motivation, wellbeing, and accomplishments. The confidence to have the power to effect changes and produce desired results by one’s actions creates the incentive to act or persevere in facing difficulties. It is at the root of all other guiding factors and motivators.

The agentic perspective accents human enablement rather than dwelling on human failings and dysfunctions. People live in social systems that are more or less conducive to cultivating potentialities and improving life quality. Beneficial social systems enable competencies, build people’s efficacy belief to influence events that affect their lives, create equitable opportunity structures, provide aidful resources, and allow leeway for self-directedness.

Optimism Rooted in Self-Efficacy

Positive affect raises perceived self-efficacy, and negative affect lowers it. The direct-effect model suggests the impact of affect on psychosocial functioning works partly through personal efficacy beliefs. Hope and optimism, hedonic balance with positive affect exceeding negative affect, and life satisfaction are rooted in the sense of personal efficacy.

Combining realism about tough odds in difficult undertakings with optimism that one can beat those odds through self-development and perseverant effort has functional value in pursuing challenging objectives. Daily realities are strewn with difficulties, full of frustrations, conflicts, impediments, adversities, failures, setbacks, and inequalities. To succeed, one cannot afford to be a realist, foregoing the endeavor and being discouraged by failures should one try or become cynical about the prospect of effecting personal and social changes. An unshakable sense of efficacy and a firm belief in the worth of what one is doing will provide the needed staying power to weather a lot of frustration and override repeated early rejections.

Effects of Perceived Self-Efficacy

Efficacy beliefs regulate human functioning through cognitive, motivational, emotional, and decisional processes. Efficacy beliefs

influence whether people think pessimistically or optimistically, in self-enhancing or self-debilitating ways;

shape people’s outcome expectations- whether they expect their efforts to produce favorable outcomes or adverse ones;

determine how opportunities and impediments are viewed:

People of low efficacy are easily convinced of the futility of effort in the face of difficulties. They quickly give up trying.

People of high efficacy view impediments as surmountable by developing requisite competencies and perseverant effort. They stay the course in the face of difficulties and remain resilient to adversity.

affect the quality of emotional life and vulnerability to stress and depression: belief in one’s recovery efficacy and bounce-back capacity following setbacks and failures on matters of import supports the effort needed to restore one’s wellbeing;

determine the choices people make at important decisional points: by choosing their environments and the types of activities to get into they can have a hand in what they become, selecting environments conducive to the cultivation of valued potentialities and lifestyles and shaping personal destinies.

Sources of Perceived Self-Efficacy

Successes build robust efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially early on, when people feel insecure about their capabilities. With easy successes, people expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. Resilient efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. Success is achieved by learning from failed efforts. Hence, resilience is also built by training to manage failure, so it is instructive rather than demoralizing.

Social models are sources of aspiration, competencies, and motivation. Seeing (observing) people like oneself succeed by perseverant effort enables symbolized transmission of ideas, values, belief systems, and lifestyles, raising observers’ beliefs in their abilities.

The third mode of influence is social persuasion by credible, knowledgeable persuaders who practice what they preach. One can achieve active forms of effective efficacy building through persuasion by arranging situations for others to bring success and avoiding placing them prematurely in situations they are likely to fail, encouraging judgment of success by self-improvement rather than triumphs over others, and providing enabling guidance.

People judge their efficacy partly by their physical and emotional states, reading tension, anxiety, and weariness as signs of personal deficiencies. A positive mood enhances a sense of efficacy; a depressed mood diminishes it. Reducing anxiety and depression, building physical strength and stamina, and changing negative misinterpretations of physical and affective states can strengthen efficacy beliefs.

The Three Modes of Agency

Individual agency is the exercise of personal influence on one’s functioning and environmental events.

One can also exercise agency as a proxy on behalf of others to secure outcomes they desire by using one’s resources, knowledge, and means to act.

Some things are achievable only by working together through interdependent effort requiring the exercise of collective agency to pool knowledge, skills, and resources and act in concert to shape the future. Collective agency comes from people’s shared belief in their collective efficacy to achieve desired results, influencing the type of futures they seek to accomplish by working together; how well they use their resources; how much effort they put into their group endeavor; their staying power when their efforts fail to produce quick results or meet strong opposition; their vulnerability to the discouragement that can beset those taking on challenging social problems; and what they accomplish by their collective efforts (Bandura, 1999).

Everyday functioning relies on all three forms of agency.

The strengths of families, communities, organizations, and social institutions lie partly in people’s sense of collective efficacy that they can solve the problems they face and improve their lives through unified effort.

Resilience: Reactive Risk Models versus Proactive Mastery Models

Our theories grossly over-predict psychopathology. Children growing up in impoverished and risky environments mostly make it through without debilitating defeat, surmounting even enormous hardship and developing into efficacious, caring, and productive adults.

Risk factors command our attention. Enablement factors that equip people with the skills and resilient self-beliefs to manage their lives receive less notice. Enablement provides people with the personal resources to select and construct their environments to set a successful course for their lives. Enablement is a dynamic, functional, optimistic view. In contrast, a static epidemiological view depicts enabling factors in terms of protective factors that shield individuals from harsh realities or weaken their negative impact.

A key factor in resilience is the development of a stable social bond with a competent and caring adult who offers emotional support and guidance and promotes meaningful values and standards. Enabling caregivers model constructive coping styles and create opportunities for mastery experiences, building trust, competencies, and a sense of personal efficacy.

Physical attractiveness and a pleasant temperament help to draw nurturing caretaking. As children develop positive attributes, they become more engaging to others and attract support from them. Social connectedness provides continuing guidance and opportunities for self-development. As children cultivate interests that bring satisfaction and develop intellectual competencies essential for managing everyday life demands, they are more likely to thrive under adversity and play a proactive role in shaping their life. They become highly resourceful in finding and creating environments conducive to their development and even becoming themselves caretakers of siblings or their household elders.

Diathesis-Stress Model

The heroic life stories of children growing up in extraordinary hardship support an agentic in contrast to a reactive conception of human adaptation and resilience.

The diathesis-stress model emphasizes external stressors that act upon personal vulnerabilities to produce emotional and behavioral disorders. Epidemiological risk-buffer models posit protective factors as buffers to stressors. 

The view of a person devoid of agentic functions as simply a host for vulnerabilities on which the environment acts is conceived mainly in reactive terms understating the proactive role people play in their adaptation. Life is more than a series of happenings; people exercise self-regulatory influence, creating supportive environments for themselves by seeking out beneficial social networks and developing competencies to enable them to transform threatening environments into benign ones.

Substance Abuse

Perseverance in the face of relapse is a good indicator of eventual success. Many alcoholics eventually quit drinking without treatment, assistance, or radical environmental change (Vaillant, 1995). Studies of self-directed change by Perrie (1985) show that successful self-regulators are highly skilled in enlisting the component sub-functions of self-regulation. They track their behavior and the conditions under which they engage in it. They set proximal goals for exercising control over their behavior. They draw from various coping strategies rather than rely on a single technique. They create motivating incentives to sustain their efforts and apply self-influence more consistently and persistently than ineffectual self-changers.

Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Our conception of health is mainly grounded in a biomedical disease model.

Lifestyle habits heavily influence the quality of health.

Exposure to stressors with the ability to exercise some control over them has no adverse physical effects. But exposure to the same stressors, without the ability to control them, activates several bodily systems, impairing immune function. Stress experienced while gaining mastery and hope enhances immune status rather than impairs it. The higher the growth in perceived self-efficacy, the better the immune status.

We are heavily preoccupied with the physically debilitating effects of stressors. Self-efficacy theory also acknowledges the physiologically strengthening effects of mastery over stressors and successful coping.

Effective self-management of health behavior is not a matter of will. It requires the development of self-regulatory skills to influence one’s motivation and behavior.

Stress arises when perceived task demands exceed perceived coping capabilities. A primarily ignored stressor is the emotional strain experienced when people are trapped in activities that permit little opportunity to use their talents fully.

For example, women taking responsibility and purposive pursuits beyond their family life can provide satisfaction and meaning to their lives over the expanded life span. Job satisfaction enhances the quality of family life, and women’s sense of efficacy in managing dual (family and work) roles contributes to personal wellbeing and better health. Fulfilling career pursuits can have positive spillover effects on family life.

Promoting Wellbeing

Human wellbeing and attainments are products of a reciprocal interplay of interpersonal/cognitive, behavioral, and environmental determinants. People shape their lives by the choices they make and the actions they take, expressing their beliefs and value commitments in their behavior, cultivating competencies, and adopting behavioral pursuits that bring satisfaction through what one is doing. The cognitive focus involves cultivating functional cognitive skills for comprehending and managing one’s environment in beneficial ways, replacing self-hindering thinking habits with positive enabling ones, and committing to values that give meaning and purpose to one’s life. Efforts at the environmental locus aim to create hospitable environments that foster personal development and provide supporting resources and opportunity structures that enable people to realize a satisfying and meaningful life.

Self-satisfaction comes from fulfilling standards linked to something one cares about. People gain satisfaction from ongoing advancement toward what they value. Ongoing engagement in things one cares about provides the basis for a satisfying and meaningful life. Personal investment and commitment to something one feels is worth doing helps people organize their lives, motivates them, enables them to put up with hassles along the way, and gives them meaning purpose, and a sense of accomplishment. Individuals are bored and apathetic without such commitment and engagement and seek escape from tedium in diversionary activities and hedonic gratifications.

The link to broader purposes of life makes the striving for satisfaction and wellbeing an endeavor of meaningful pursuits to improve the conditions of life with hope for a better future for all. With a vision for a future one cares deeply about, long-range goals can set the direction for one’s pursuits. Abstract ideas are not enough to regulate current behavior; short-term subgoals focus efforts on what has to be done in the here and now to turn a distal vision into reality. Subgoal accomplishments build belief in one’s efficacy and bring satisfaction, creating intrinsic interest in the activity. Through these motivational processes, even activities that initially held little interest can become a labor of love. Ongoing advancement toward what one values provides satisfaction, and ongoing engagement in things one cares about provides the basis for a satisfying and meaningful life.

Dynamic Comparative Determination of Subjective Wellbeing

Self-satisfaction and subjective wellbeing is rooted in temporal, social, and aspirational comparison processes, making these states relationally determined (i.e., dynamic comparative determinants) rather than solely based on absolute properties of one’s living conditions. The valence and functional status of the objective reality is context-dependent. The same modest reward is satisfying in comparison with smaller previous rewards but dissatisfying in comparison with previous large rewards.

In temporal comparison, subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction depend on whether it is better or worse than before. Even small gains can be dissatisfying if they fail to match larger prior ones. The strategy for maintaining a sense of wellbeing over the life course focuses on self-comparison during progressive improvement and shifts to social comparison with similar-aged cohorts when capabilities begin to wane in later years.

In social comparison, wellbeing and satisfaction depend on whether one’s life quality compares favorably or unfavorably with the quality of life others enjoy. In the past, social comparisons were confined mainly to one’s immediate environment.

In aspirational comparison, people’s subjective wellbeing and satisfaction are influenced by how their life status measures up against the life ambition they set for themselves. Those who live up to the valued standards they set for themselves are likely satisfied and self-fulfilled.

In contrast, those who see their life hopes dashed and opportunities foreclosed view their life as a disappointment.

The combination of some improvement in one’s life circumstances, being slightly better off than one’s cohorts, and having low ambition for upward mobility can produce some measure of satisfaction with even a marginal existence.

Conversely, stagnation or decline in one’s life circumstances, seeing one’s cohorts prosper, and adhering to high social status and riches as the standard of adequateness will breed discontent even in individuals living under objectively affluent conditions.

Material possessions, approval of others, and self-evaluative processes influence subjective wellbeing. People live in a psychic environment mainly of their own making, adopting standards of merit and morality to regulate their conduct and emotional life through self-evaluative reactions. A sense of self-worth and positive self-regard weighs heavily in people’s subjective wellbeing.

Socio-cognitive Model for Effective Society-Wide Changes

Long-running serial dramas produced within societal change programs help viewers to see a better life and provide them with strategies and incentives that enable them to take steps to realize it. The dramatizations are grounded in the internationally endorsed values codified in United Nations covenants and resolutions. These values embody respect for human dignity, equitable opportunities, and social practices that support common human aspirations. The dramatized options and how they affect the course of life enable people to make informed choices to improve their lives.

Four principles guide the production of these dramatic serials. First, seeing people like themselves change their lives for the better conveys strategies for how to do it and raises viewers’ sense of efficacy that they can succeed. Characters in viewers likeness who struggle with challenging obstacles and eventually overcome them inspire viewers through social modeling.

Contrasting models highlight the personal and social effects of different styles of behavior. Positive models portray healthful lifestyles. Negative models exhibit detrimental views and lifestyles. Transitional models are shown to transform their lives by discarding harmful behavior in favor of beneficial ones.

The second principle enlists vicarious motivators as incentives for change. The personal and social benefits of the favorable practices and the costs of the detrimental ones are vividly portrayed. Depicted beneficial outcomes serve as positive incentives for change, whereas depicted harmful outcomes function as disincentives. Successes do not come easy. People have to challenge adverse traditions and inequitable constraints to change their lives for the better. They must be prepared for the obstacles they are likely to encounter. Through social modeling, people see everyday problem situations and effective ways of overcoming them, learn how to manage setbacks and recover from failed attempts, and are encouraged to enlist guidance and social support for personal change from self-help groups and other agencies in their localities. Seeing others succeed through perseverant effort also boosts staying power in the face of obstacles.

Third, to change deeply held beliefs and social practices requires strong emotional bonding to enabling models who exemplify a vision of a better future and realistic paths to it. Ongoing engagement in the evolving lives of the models provides numerous opportunities to learn from them and be inspired by them through sustained attentional and emotional engagement in the dramatized lives.

Fourth, appropriate resources and environmental supports to realize changes are provided through epilogues delivered by culturally admired figures that provide contact information to relevant community services and support groups.