“As for the future it remains unwritten. Anything can happen, and often we are wrong. The best we can do with the future is to prepare and savor the possibilities of what can be done in the present.”
– Todd Kashdan
“Positive psychology progress. Empirical validation of interventions” is a central article in the field and offers a review of the developments in positive psychology from early 2000 until 2005 (the year this article was published).
What follows is a summary of the article with the key aspects and findings.
“The value of the overarching term positive psychology lies in its uniting of what had been scattered and disparate lines of theory and research about what makes life most worth living.”
The American Psychologist millennial issue in 2000 was devoted to positive psychology and marks the emerging of a science dedicated to the study of positive emotions, positive character and positive institutions.
Positive psychologists study mental health and well-being deploying the same methods used to effectively study mental disorders.
Positive psychology’s roots trace back to the works of Rogers, Maslow, Jahoda, Erikson, Vaillant, Deci & Ryan and many others.
Positive psychology researchers didn’t invent the good life or pioneered its scientific study. What positive psychology did was create a framework for a body of research and theory about what makes life most worth living, that did not exist before.
As the science rapidly moves forward, the question becomes:
“Can psychologists take what they learned from the science and practice of treating mental illness and use it to create a practice of making people lastingly happier?”
Progress in Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is a broad term used to describe the study of positive emotions, positive traits and positive institutions.
The result that this body of research aims to complement in no way replaces the scientific understanding of mental disorders. It can therefore achieve a more complete picture of human experience. One that captures both the ups and the downs, as well as everything in between.
A complete psychological science should include an understanding of suffering and happiness and their interaction, therefore validating interventions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness (distinct tasks).
Over the course of 5 years (2000 – 2005) the amount of articles in scholarly and popular press escalated rapidly. So as the number of books published, including the following:
- The Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez)
- Authentic Happiness (Seligman)
- A Psychology of Human Strengths (Aspinwall & Staudinger)
- Flourish (Seligman)
- Positive Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures (Lopez & Snyder)
- Positive Psychology in Practice (Linley & Joseph)
Character Strengths and Virtues
Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and Classification (CSV) by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson is the result of an ambitious endeavour that describes and classifies human strengths and virtues that enable individuals to flourish.
This systematic approach to positive traits aimed to do for well-being what the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) does for psychological disorders: develop a common language for psychologists around the world.
One point that the authors make clear is that these positive traits are regarded as individual differences that exist in degrees instead of all-or-nothing categories.
The structure of the CSV relies on 6 virtues that are endorsed and valued across almost all cultures worldwide:
Under each of these virtues, fall 24 character strengths that meet criteria such as being ubiquitous, fulfilling, morally valued, trait-like, etc.
Each chapter of the CSV includes and details what is known and what is not known about each strength, including: paradigm cases, consensual definition, historical and cross cultural background, enabling and disabling conditions, gender differences, interventions that build that strength and more.
Three interesting findings emerged.
1. A remarkable resemblance in the endorsement of the character strengths by adults around the world. The most common ones in 40 different countries are:
The least common ones are:
2. Comparing strengths profiles of U.S. adults and U.S. adolescents reveals a general agreement on ranking yet a lower agreement was found between U.S. adults and adults of other countries.
Hope, teamwork and zest were more common in U.S. youths than in their adult compatriots. Among these last, appreciation of beauty, authenticity, leadership and open-mindedness revealed more common.
Which points out that we should be as concerned with how to prevent certain strengths to erode as we grow older, as we are with building strengths.
3. It seems that strengths “of the heart” like zest, gratitude, hope and love are more robustly associated with life satisfaction than the more cognitive strengths like curiosity or love of learning. This was found true among both adults and youths and longitudinal evidence suggests that these heart strengths predict later life satisfaction.
In many ways, the bottom line of positive psychology lies in its ability to increase individual happiness. Therefore the next section is dedicated to assessing the efficacy of positive psychology interventions.
About the word happiness: it’s too broad of a term and its serious study involves three distinct routes:
- Positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life)
- Engagement (the engaged life)
- Meaning (the meaningful life)
Studies show that people vary according to the type of life they pursue and that the most satisfied people are the ones that pursue all three of the above routes, with the greatest weight on engagement and meaning. We’ll continue to use the word happiness to refer jointly to these three paths.
One important factor that emerged over the last years is that happiness is causal and brings many benefits, including better health, more success and social engagement. And this relationship goes both ways.
“Happy people are healthier, more successful and more socially engaged and the causal direction runs both ways.”
Can Positive Psychology Make People Happier?
Of all the existing positive psychology interventions, which of them really work? And which are at best placebos?
One of the methods used to answer questions like these is the random control trial (RCT), which randomly assigns people participating in the trial to either the group receiving the treatment under investigation or to a group receiving standard treatment (or placebo treatment), therefore minimising biases.
Another consideration taken into account is whether or not an intervention has the ability to produce lasting effects on happiness. Research into hedonic adaptation suggests that people rapidly adapt to positive changes and fall back to their baseline levels of happiness.
The authors decided to persist and put the interventions to test with random control trials.
Validation of the Interventions
Using the internet to recruit and deliver the interventions allowed the authors to collect a sample of 577 adult participants, out of these 411 completed all the assessments.
Participants were assessed prior to any intervention, on their levels of depression (using the Center for Epidemiological Studies – Depression Scale) as well as happiness (using the Steen Happiness Index). Both of the measuring instruments chosen for their sensibility to weekly changes. Participants were followed for 6 months.
The first large RCT included 5 happiness exercises and 1 placebo control exercise. The happiness exercises included:
- The gratitude visit ((writing and delivering a letter of gratitude)
- Three good things in life (writing three things that went well each day)
- You at your best (writing about a time they felt at their best)
- Using strengths in a new way (after assessing their signature strengths, participants were asked to use them in new and different ways everyday)
- Identifying character strengths (participants were asked to take the survey in order to identify their strengths)
As for the placebo exercise it consisted of writing about early memories every night for one week.
- 42% male and 58% female
- 64% of participants were between 35 and 54 years old
- 39% had a 4 year college degree and only 4% didn’t have education or vocational training after high school
- 77% were white
Participants were assessed across the following time points:
- Pre-test (before intervention)
- Immediate post-test (one week after intervention)
- Three months after pre-test
- Six months after the pre-test
Two interventions resulted both in an increase on happiness up to six months – using signature strengths in a new way and three good things – as well as a decrease of depressive symptoms.
The three good things exercise showed beneficial effects one month after the post-test. And these benefits lasted up to 6 months. A similar long-term effect occurred for the participants with the using strengths in a new way exercise. Immediate effects weren’t as strong as the three good things, but at the one month follow-up and beyond participants were happier and less depressed.
The gratitude visit caused the largest positive change of the whole study, this effect lasted for one month. By three months participants were were no happier and no less depressed than they were at baseline.
The other two exercises (identifying character strengths and you at your best) and the placebo caused positive but fleeting effects on happiness and depressive symptoms.
The degree to which participants actively continued their exercises (even though they weren’t specifically instructed to) mediated the long-term benefits.
The participants who continued the exercises were the happiest. Indicating that the interaction between continuing the exercise and the adherence to the exercise was significant to happiness levels.
Specific interventions make people lastingly happier. Writing about three good things and using character strengths in a new way made people happier and less depressed up to six months later.
Six months might not be happily ever after, however the findings contradict the notion that any pursuit of happiness is futile because of hedonic adaptation.
As more and more interventions are created, studies will continue to explore which ones work and which are inert, these inert exercises can be used as placebo controls even though they were intended as well-being enhancers.
The taking action towards one’s happiness (assigned by a professional) may be sufficient to lift one’s mood in the short term. This would explain the short term effect experienced in the placebo.
We should take into account that the participants were probably motivated to try things to feel better, and most did, at least in the short-term.
By one week, the placebo group returned to baseline levels (of happiness and depressive symptoms) and remained there for the following six months.
People in the “you at you best” condition showed a similar effect to the placebo: an immediate boost in happiness and a decrease in depression that didn’t last beyond the post-test. Leading to the conclusion that these interventions are not effective, at least not by themselves.
It might be that, if combined in a multi-exercise program that contains inert interventions and effective ones, the benefits exceed the ones of a single intervention.
These interventions were delivered exclusively online, with no human hands. It’s often discussed that the power of a therapy lies in the client-therapist relationship. Therefore, the benefits of these interventions could potentially be enhanced if delivered through the hands of a skilled clinician or coach.
The sample of this study consisted mainly of well-educated, white and financially comfortable participants. They were also mildly depressed. So further studies on the efficacy of these interventions with individuals much happier and much more depressed and from different backgrounds may shed a light on the extent to which these findings can be generalised.
The research also showed a reduction in depressive symptoms, leading to speculation that these interventions may prove therapeutic in depressive states. Positive interventions can be an important supplement to traditional therapy and another tool that the therapist can use.
Psychotherapy is commonly seen as the place you go to talk about your troubles and weaknesses, we would like to see the psychotherapy of the future be the place where you go to, also, talk about your strengths.
“We suggest that the psychotherapy of the future may also be where you go to talk about your strengths.”
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5)