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Three Simple Steps Toward Becoming a Multiple Health Behavior Change Researcher

Marcella H. Boynton, PhD, Multiple Health Behavior Change SIG Co-Chair

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." World Health Organization

Lately, this quote has been following me around. I've seen it on posters on the wall, in my readings on health issues, and even as a Facebook post on a friend's page. What I find so amazing is that this definition of health was adopted by WHO in 1948, and it has not been altered since that time. The belief that health is about the promotion of wellness, and not simply the eradication of illness and infirmity, seems quite forward-thinking, even now. For those of us who live in United States, we are only just beginning to see the adoption of this mentality within the health care industry and our culture more broadly. An increasing focus on multiple health behavior change has contributed to this paradigm shift, and is one way that we can hope to promote health in its truest sense. Here are three simple ways to begin:

  1. Know thy literature. Recently I wrote a review for a top-tier social psychology journal on a paper examining a traditionally clinical mental health topic. The issue was important, the theory intriguing, and the paper well-written. Yet, the paper was rejected. One major reason was that the author completely ignored the copious clinical literature on the subject and only tapped the literature from his own discipline. As a health behavior researcher, it is critically important to know the health literature across multiple disciplines and behaviors. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary not only to please potential reviewers but also because it gives you a much deeper well to draw from as you develop your own research ideas.
  2. Cross the disciplinary divide. With the proliferation of publication outlets and the common practice of packaging research into the "minimum publishable unit," you are probably now shaking your fist at me in frustration. How can one possibly hope to have a working knowledge of multiple health behaviors across multiple disciplines? Quite simply, unless you are an intellectual juggernaut who can read and synthesize papers morning, noon, and night, it is not possible. But the good news is that you do not have to go it alone. Crossing the disciplinary divide means that you can (and should!) develop collaborative relationships with folks from an array of disciplines who study various health topics. When you bring together a team of people with a range of expertise, you can rely on the synergistic skills of the group to drive your questions, methods, and manuscript preparation.
  3. Redefine your research "identity." For both historical and practical reasons, many health researchers define their research identities by the health behavior they study. While useful, this approach can at times over-emphasize pathology and under-emphasize overall wellness. Studying multiple health behaviors underscores the primacy of health processes over health outcomes. As a consequence, when entering the domain of multiple health behavior research you may find yourself having to reframe your research identity accordingly. And even though this may take some getting used to, in the end, it is important to remember all health behavior researchers are striving for the same thing--the promotion of true health for all.