Increasing happiness (Part 2)
The last couple of decades have seen an explosion of interest in psychological research into happiness. More specifically, researchers are devoting more attention than ever before into investigating strategies and interventions designed to increase individual happiness.
This area of research interest will continue to be our prime focus in the coming weeks, as we seek to shine a light on just some of the notable findings in what continues to be a burgeoning field.
In the most recent post, we took a close look at the link between gratitude and happiness, highlighting the work of Robert Emmons. This time, we examine a piece of work looking at how a range of different interventions (including one rooted in gratitude) can impact on happiness and symptoms of depression.
Published in Journal of Happiness Studies in 2013, the research by Fabian Gander, Rene Proyer, Willibald Ruch, and Tobias Wyss covered a lot of ground, investigating the effectiveness of nine approaches.
At the outset, 2,374 participants were each assigned to one of the nine interventions or to a placebo control group (the latter being a standard research strategy, with a view towards having a comparison population).
The nine intervention conditions were:
• Gratitude visit: Write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone you are grateful to, but have never thanked appropriately.
• Three good things: Write down three things that went well for you and offer an explanation as to why those things happened (every day for one week).
• Using signature strengths in a new way: Based on feedback identifying your top five character strengths, use one of those strengths in a new way every day for one week.
• Three good things in two weeks: Instructions as above, but extended for an additional week.
• Gratitude visit and three good things: Combining two separate approaches detailed above. Here, participants were instructed to undertake the gratitude task in week #1 and then maintain the good things log in week #2.
• Three funny things: A variation on the three good things intervention. Here, the mission was to write down the three funniest things that happened every day for one week, and to also offer an explanation.
• Counting kindness: Count and report the acts of kindness you perform (every day for one week).
• Gift of time: Offer at least three ‘gifts of time’ in one week by contacting/meeting three people you care about.
• One door closes, another door opens: Write about a moment in your life when a negative event led to unforeseen positive consequences (every day for one week).
• Participants in the placebo control condition were asked to write about early memories for one week.
The stated purpose of the study was to replicate earlier positive findings on the effectiveness of some interventions, to test variants and combinations as outlined above, and also to measure how counting kindness, gift of time, and another door opens-interventions would fare in an online setting.
The success of each approach was assessed based on scores achieved by participants on self-report happiness and depression questionnaires. Results were monitored over time, with each participant completing the Authentic Happiness Inventory and Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale on five occasions – at the outset, at the end of the formal exercise period, and then on three further occasions over the following six months.
Interestingly, it was found that depression scores fell across all groups over time, while eight of the nine interventions groups reported increased happiness, with the one exception being those assigned to ‘three good things in two weeks’. The researchers highlighted how this appeared to be a surprising finding at first glance, particularly given that participants assigned to the shorter version of this intervention tended to report greater benefits if they continued with it beyond the initial one week period.
In seeking to explain this seeming discrepancy, the researchers proposed that the key element may relate to the idea of choice. Some participants assigned to the shorter version of the intervention voluntarily chose to continue with it, whereas those assigned to the longer version were ‘instructed’ to maintain the practice for two weeks.
This, in turn, highlights the importance of the duration of the formal period of an intervention (longer is not always better) and also how the individual perceives of and engages with the task (if you are more open to and enthusiastic about an approach, it may yield greater benefits).
One of the points acknowledged by the writers when discussing the limitations of their study was the possibility of self-selection being a factor in the results, i.e., participants knew what the research was about and may have been primed to benefit arising from their desire to be involved. This point has arisen many times in happiness research. Specifically, how problematic is it for such work if participants are attracted to the idea of happiness interventions in the first place? It doesn’t render the exercise futile, but if happiness interventions attract people who are actively interested in boosting their happiness, to what extent might that impact on the results, i.e., is there a self-fulfilling prophecy at work? And if so, to what extent are positive results in such work explained by that, as opposed to the actual content of the interventions themselves? These are questions we will seek to address next time.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.