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On the internet and in the bookstores, a thousand gurus tout different remedies for human misery. How can we find out which remedies work? We need to consult one of our greatest gurus, the scientific method. Recently we have seen a dramatic upsurge in scientific studies on Positive Psychology and the science of happiness or to put it simply, discovering what makes happy people happy. Fortunately, many of these studies point to specific ways of thinking and acting that can strongly impact our happiness. The resulting discoveries are enriching the practices of counseling, clinical psychology, psychiatry and life coaching. In these pages, we review the most scientific studies and translate the results into non-technical English.
The 7 Habits of Happy People
The top line: People who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier. It doesn’t seem to matter if we have a large network of close relationships or not. What seems to make a difference is if, and how often, we cooperate in activities and share our personal feelings with a friend or relative. Simply put, it’s not the quantity of our relationships, but the quality that matters.
In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were “their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” (“The New Science of Happiness,” Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine, Jan. 09, 2005).
In one study people were asked on random occasions about their mood. They were found to be happiest with their friends, followed by family members, and least happy if they were alone (Larson, Mannell, & Zuzanek, 1986). Another study constructed a scale of cooperativeness, i.e. how willing people were to constructively engage in activities with others. This study showed that the cooperativeness of an individual was a predictor of their happiness, though it did not conclusively show if their cooperation resulted in happiness or the other way around (Lu & Argyle, 1991). A study on the quality of relationships found that to avoid loneliness, people needed only one close relationship coupled with a network of other relationships. To form a close relationship required a growing amount of “self-disclosure,” or a willingness to reveal ones personal issues and feelings, and without it people with friends would still be lonely (Jackson, Soderlind & Weiss, 2000). A similar study found that some students who had many friends with whom they often spent time were still plagued by loneliness, and this seemed to be related to their tendency to talk about impersonal topics, such as sports and pop music, instead of their personal life (Wheeler).
The top line: People who volunteer or simply care for others on a consistent basis seem to be happier and less depressed. This seems to be especially true in older individuals.
Most people who care for others in a selfless manner do so because of a genuine desire to help and improve the world around them. Nonetheless, modern sociological research has shown that caring has benefits for all involved; people who volunteer or care for others on a consistent basis tend to have better mental well-being, including fewer depressive symptoms and higher life-satisfaction.
Although “caring” can involve volunteering as part of an organized group or club, it can be as simple as reaching out to a workmate or classmate who looks lonely or is struggling with an issue. Studies show that people who reach out like this, even for as little as 2-3 hours per week, can benefit in multiple ways. Of the many different ways in which individuals care for others, organized volunteering is the most widely studied form in the scientific literature. The majority of studies agree that there is a very significant association between volunteering and psychological well-being. Several studies have found that this correlation appears to be highest in older adults (Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Wheeler et al., 1998).
The same level of correlation has not been found in younger adults as a whole. Yet, a subgroup of younger adults who engage in sustained volunteering over long periods of time do in fact have higher levels of mental well-being (Wheeler et al., 1998). The authors of this study speculated that many young adults who volunteer for short periods of time may have been encouraged to volunteer by their schools or did so to boost their chances of getting into college. In contrast, older volunteers tend to cite moral responsibility. This suggests that “intrinsically motivated” volunteers, i.e. those who are more motivated for the sake of volunteering itself, feel more satisfaction than “extrinsically motivated” volunteers (Midlarsky, Kahana, 1993).
One more intriguing set of data reveals that the recipients of volunteer activities who were encouraged to participate or cooperate in some way, tended to experience greater happiness. In contrast to this, those who passively received the benefits did not become significantly happier, and in some cases became more depressed. As is true for other areas of research, it is considerably more difficult to prove that volunteering causes improved mental well-being than to simply identify an association between the two. At least one study, however, has attempted to do the former with a prospective, randomized trial (Yuen et al., 2008). The authors of this study randomly assigned a population of older adults into one of two groups: a group that volunteered for three months, and a control group that did not. At the end of the trial, the researchers found that those who volunteered scored higher on indices of mental well-being than those who did not. These effects persisted three months after the end of the trial, indicating that the benefits of volunteering may be long-lasting.
3. Health and Wellness
The top line: Regular exercise is associated with improved mental well-being and a lower incidence of depression.
Have you ever noticed that you feel great after going for a run? Do you love working out or playing sports on a regular basis? It turns out that you are not alone, and that exercise may have a big effect on mood and mental well-being. While it might be no surprise that exercise can improve your mood, a good deal of scientific research has been conducted to discover the possible reasons for this.
Some researchers argue that exercise may act as a diversion from negative thoughts, and the mastery of a new skill may be important. There is evidence to indicate that social contact between people who are working out or involved in sports may be an important source of satisfaction as well. Still others think that physical activity causes the brain to release chemicals called endorphins that cause one to feel good after exercising. Most of the researchers looking at exercise and mood compared groups of people who were exercising to those who were not. They then looked to see if those who were exercising felt better in the short term. Some researchers compared exercising to treatments for depression such as antidepressant medications or cognitive-behavioral therapy. The vast majority of studies have shown that there is a significant association between exercise and improved well-being. It has proved more difficult, however, to show that exercise directly causes mental well-being; people who are happier, after all, may simply be more inclined to exercise.
The Cochrane Review (the most influential review of its kind in the world) has produced a landmark metaanalysis of studies on exercise and depression. They picked 23 rigorous studies out of a pool of more than one hundred. The conclusion was that exercise had a “large clinical impact” on depression.
Among the studies that support the theory that exercise directly causes improved mental well-being (as opposed to vice-versa) is one that looked at the effect of exercise on older adults with clinical depression (Blumenthal et al., 1999). The authors compared exercise to a commonly prescribed anti-depressant medication (Zoloft), and found that both were equally effective in reducing depressive symptoms. In contrast to these results, a group of researchers from the Netherlands found that exercise may not be nearly as important as genetics in determining one’s mental well-being (Stubbe et al., 2007). These researchers looked at pairs of identical twins in which one twin exercised significantly more than the other, and found that there was no significant difference in their levels of happiness.
In conclusion, there is a great deal of evidence that exercise is associated with improved mental-well being and a lesser incidence of depressive symptoms. Nevertheless, there is still controversy in the scientific community as to whether exercise causes improved mental well-being, or whether those with improved mental well-being have a predisposition for exercise. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle.
The top line: If we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow.” One may find still greater happiness experiencing “flow” in working towards long-term, meaningful goals.
Do you ever find yourself so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time? All of a sudden you look up at the clock and realize that hours have passed and you missed dinner time? Think a minute about this. When does this loss of time and total engagement typically occur for you? This could apply to a martial artist completely absorbed in perfecting a flying kick, or a violinist fiercely concentrating on a complex symphony. One may find still greater happiness working towards long-term, meaningful goals. Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, once said “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” (Frankl, 1992)
This loss of self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity – intellectual, social, or physical – is described in contemporary psychology as a state of flow. In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You must feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion – a complete loss of self-consciousness –however, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating!
A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both SWB (Subjective well-being) and PWB (Psychological well-being). Furthermore, it has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and greater health.
One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also one of the founders of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi began his research on flow by studying artists and creative types (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). He noted that the act of creating seemed at times more important than the finished work itself and he was fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identify the different elements involved in achieving such a state.
One of the major methods he developed (along with colleague Robert Larson) to study flow is the experience sampling method (ESM). People are given a beeper which beeps at random times during the day: participants are asked to answer a series of questions about what they are doing and how they are feeling (Larson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1983). Over a period of time, the researcher can observe certain patterns in behavior: for example, that people are generally happier after they have eaten a meal or practiced a hobby than at work or watching television. Much of this research has resulted in some pretty interesting conclusions about the relation between flow and happiness.
In one study 250 “high-flow” and “low-flow” teenagers were asked to report on their feelings and activities at regular intervals (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The high-flow teenagers on average reported more time spent on “active leisure” activities such as hobbies, sports and homework. The high-flow teenagers also measured higher levels of self-esteem and engagement. Interestingly, however, the high-flow teenagers self-reported lower levels of fun than the low-flow teenagers. Apparently, high-flow teenagers see their low-flow peers as experiencing more fun engaging in low-flow activities, such as video games, TV or socializing. However, the high-flow kids end up having greater long term happiness as well as success in school, social relationships and careers. If flow has such incredible benefits to our happiness, relationships and success, then why do people habitually choose low-flow activities? Why do people, in the moment, choose another episode of American Idol over a game of pickup basketball? One hypothesis is that the high-flow activities require more initial motivation because they do require skill and concentration. In other words, high-flow activities are work! But work that pays off. And unfortunately low-flow activities, such as watching TV, often contribute to low levels of depression and self-esteem.
Another study examined the relationship between environmental factors, flow, and happiness, again taking a sample from American teenagers (Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter, 2003). The ESM data indicated that particular activities are associated with varying degrees of happiness. School activities rate below average scores in happiness, while social, active and passive leisure activities are above average. Particular social relationships also correlate to differing levels of happiness. Being alone rates the lowest levels of happiness, while being with friends corresponds to the highest. Youth who spend more time in school and social activities are happier than those who spend less. Unexpectedly, students who spend more time pleasure reading report lower levels of happiness. Finally, feeling good about the self, excited, proud, sociable, active as well as being in the conditions for flow experience are the strongest predictors of trait happiness (long-term happiness).
OTHER RECENT RESEARCH ON FLOW
While most of Csikszentmihalyi’s research has focused on American teenagers, his findings have been replicated in Italy (Csikszentmihalyi and Wong, 1989) and India (Sahoo, F. & Sahu, R., 2009). A recent study investigated the relationship between flow and happiness in an older population (Collins, A., Sarkisian, N. & Winner, W., 2009). Fifty-four older adults ranging in age from 70 to 86 years old (M = 77.54) reported daily levels of positive and negative affect, life satisfaction and daily activities for seven consecutive days. Higher quality of flow was positively associated with high arousal positive affect (i.e. feeling peppy, enthusiastic), negatively associated with low arousal negative affect (i.e. feeling sad and disappointed), and positively associated with life satisfaction. However, more frequent flow experiences throughout the week predicted lower average levels of positive affect and life satisfaction. The authors explain this unexpected finding by hypothesizing that many unhappy people (at least among the older population) seek out flow-like experiences as a “fix” to boost their present affect level. In conclusion, the results demonstrate that an individual’s overall propensity to experience flow may be influential beyond the immediate effects of a given flow experience.
5. Spiritual Engagement and Meaning
The top line: People follow spiritual paths and join religious organizations for innumerable reasons, including faith, prayer, social support, community service, cultural tradition, friendship, commitment to the community and more. How often do you hear someone say that they committed to a religion or spiritual practice primarily to become happier? Perhaps not often. However, interestingly enough, studies demonstrate a close link between religious and spiritual engagement (practice) and happiness.
Scientists who study this phenomenon hypothesize several possible reasons for a link between religiosity and happiness. Religious organizations provide strong social support from like-minded people, providing various opportunities for socializing, community service and making friends. Social engagement is currently recognized as being most strongly linked to happiness.
Spirituality and prayer also provide people with an opportunity to engage in a meditative act. Meditation has been shown to have a strong link with well-being because it calms the body, reduces stress and anxiety, and also supports positive thinking. Finally, both spirituality and organized religion can help provide people with perspective, hope, and a deeper sense of meaning. By believing in something greater than themselves, it may help them stay positive in times of sadness, and foster resilience.
Generally, religiosity can be defined as one’s relationship with a particular faith tradition or doctrine about a divine other or supernatural power, while spirituality can be defined as “the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self, including the sacred” and which motivates “the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose, and contribution.”1 But these abstract ideas are measured in many different ways, from frequency of church attendance to asking people “how religious are you?” As for mental well-being and happiness, studies look at indicators of mental well-being, both negative (i.e. depression) and positive (i.e. self-reported happiness, self esteem, positive relationships with others). Two recent surveys of the studies (meta-analyses) examine the different definitions and measurements of religiosity/spirituality as well as mental effects. One looks at adults, the other, adolescents, both with different results.
A 2003 review of 34 studies of mainly adult populations found that personal devotion measures are most strongly related to mental well-being, while ideological measures showed less strong though positive effects, and institutional measures (i.e. religious service attendance) had the weakest.2 A 2006 review of 20 studies with adolescent populations (average age range 10-20) reported that 90% of these studies show positive findings in the relationships between adolescent religious/spiritual engagement and mental well-being.3 In contrast to the mostly adult-based study, it was institutional involvement that had the largest effect on mental well-being, with ideological and personal devotion measures showing a smaller impact. Scientists suppose that the social and behavioral impact of institutional involvement may be more beneficial to young people, because it provides a sense of order and belonging during a difficult transitional period of their lives.
In general, they found that religious and spiritual involvement was more beneficial to older teens’ mental well-being, perhaps because it reflects personal choices rather than imposed parental expectations. They also found that it has more of an impact for males, but are unsure why. One important point about the studies is that, even though most researchers say they are looking at the “effect” of religion on mental well-being, the vast majority only show that religious and spiritual people report higher levels of happiness and mental well-being. This means that good mental well-being might predispose people to religious involvement or vice versa. To look at whether religiosity/spirituality causes better mental well-being, scientists must study people over a long period of time.
6. Strengths and Virtues
The top line: the work of positive psychologists like Martin Seligman appears to show that the happiest people are those that have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity or justice) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals. You may have had certain strengths that are so natural to you that you may not even consider them strengths. Think about an episode in your life when you were at your very best. What qualities enabled you to perform like that? While there are numerous talents and strengths that humans can possess, Character Strengths and Virtues are ones that humanity universally values. When Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson sought to discover and classify commonly held strengths and virtues across cultures, they created a classification of core virtues that humans morally value no matter their cultural, racial, and religious differences. Take the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire to determine your top three signature strengths:http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx (Note: you will have to register on the Authentic Happiness website first to take the test. This is a short form that should take only a few minutes to complete). Current research indicates that you are most likely to value a job, relationship, hobby or institution that aligns with your core signature strengths and allows you to regularly utilize them. In fact, research indicates that one of the best ways to boost your long-term happiness is to use your strengths in new ways and situations, rather than focusing on your weaknesses. This is well in keeping with the philosophy of positive psychology: to focus on the positive in your life, not the negative!
7. Mindfulness and Positive Thinking Optimism
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” One of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes suggests that optimists and pessimists have fundamentally different ways of interpreting the world. Recent research indicates that optimists and pessimists approach problems differently, and their ability to cope successfully with adversity differs as a result.
Martin Seligman defines optimism as reacting to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability. Specifically, optimistic people believe that negative events are temporary, limited in scope (instead of pervading every aspect of a person’s life), and manageable. Of course, optimism, like other psychological states and characteristics, exists on a continuum. People can also change their levels of optimism depending on the situations they are in. For simplicity’s sake, the studies discussed herein will talk about people at the higher end of the spectrum as optimists and people on the lower end as pessimists. This section will review what is known about the benefits of optimism and evidence suggesting optimism is a learnable skill.
OPTIMISTIC EXPLANATORY STYLE: MAKING SENSE OF BAD EVENTS
Imagine two students who receive the same poor grade on an exam. The first student thinks, “I’m such a failure! I always do poorly in this subject. I can’t do anything right!” The second student thinks, “This test was difficult! Oh well, it’s just one test in one class. I tend to do well in other subjects.” These students are exhibiting two types of what psychologists call “explanatory styles”. Explanatory styles reflect three attributions that a person forms about a recent event. Did it happen because of me (internal) or something or someone else (external)? Will this always happen to me (stable) or can I change what caused it (unstable)? Is this something that affects all aspects of my life (pervasive) or was it a solitary occurrence (limited)? Pessimistic people tend to view problems as internal, unchangeable, and pervasive, whereas optimistic people are the opposite. Pessimism has been linked with depression, stress, and anxiety (Kamen & Seligman, 1987), whereas optimism has been shown to serve as a protective factor against depression, as well as a number of serious medical problems, including coronary heart disease (Tindle et al., 2009). Optimistic mothers even deliver healthier, heavier babies (Lobel, DeVincent, Kaminer, & Meyer, 2000)! Optimism seems to have a tremendous number of benefits; consider several detailed below.
OPTIMISM AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
Few outcomes are more important than staying alive, and optimism is linked to life longevity. Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, and Offord (2000) examined whether explanatory styles served as risk factors for early death. With a large longitudinal sample collected in the mid-1960s, the researchers categorized medical patients as optimistic, mixed, or pessimistic. Optimism was operationalized using parts of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The researchers found that for every 10 point increase in a person’s score on their optimism scale, the risk of early death decreased by 19%. Considering that, for a middle-aged person of average health, the difference between sudden death risk factors for smokers and non-smokers is 5-10%, the protective effect of optimism found in this study is massive.
Optimism also plays a role in the recovery from illness and disease. Multiple studies have investigated the role of optimism in people undergoing treatment for cancer (e.g., Carver et al., 1993; Schou, Ekeberg, & Ruland, 2005). These studies have found that optimistic people experience less distress when faced with potentially life-threatening cancer diagnoses. For example, Schou and colleagues (2005) found that a superior “fighting spirit” found in optimists predicted substantially better quality of life one year after breast cancer surgery. Optimism also predicted less disruption of normal life, distress, and fatigue in one study of women who were undergoing painful treatment for breast cancer (Carver, Lehman, & Antoni, 2003). In this case, optimism appeared to protect against an urge to withdraw from social activities, which may be important for healing. There is also evidence that optimism can protect against the development of chronic diseases. A sample of middle-aged women was tested for precursors to atherosclerosis at a baseline and three years later. The women who endorsed greater levels of pessimism at the baseline assessment were significantly more likely to experience thickening arteries, while optimistic women experienced no such increase in thickness (Matthews, Raikkonen, Sutton-Tyrell, & Kuller, 2004).
Optimism can have an effect on a person’s immune system, as well. In one study, elderly adults were immunized for influenza (Kohut, Cooper, Nickolaus, Russell, & Cunnick, 2002). Two weeks later, their immune response to the vaccination was measured. Greater optimism predicted greater antibody production and better immune outcomes. Five studies have also investigated optimism and disease progression in people infected with HIV. Ironson and colleagues (2005) found, in a large sample, that optimism and positive HIV immune response were linearly related: people highest in optimism had the best suppression of viral load and a greater number of helper T cells, both important parts of the progression of HIV. Furthermore, another study found that optimistic men who were HIV-positive had lower mortality over a longitudinal study (Blomkvist et al., 1994). Another study that examined the link between optimism and immune system functioning was conducted by Segerstrom and Sephton (2010). This study examined a sample of entering law students over five time points in their first year of law school. Dispositional optimism (the tendency to be generally optimistic about your life) and optimism about law school, in particular, were assessed, along with measures of positive and negative affect (to determine whether any relationships between optimism and immune system functioning could be better explained through positive or negative affect). This study found that optimism predicted superior cell-mediated immunity, an important part of the immune system’s response to infectious agents. Furthermore, an individual’s changes in optimism levels from time point to time point were associated with changes in immune functioning: as optimism increased from one time point to another, immune function increased, as well. Furthermore, negative affect did not predict changes in immune function. What this means is that optimism appears to have a unique value among the factors that compose a person’s immune system. Taylor and colleagues (1992) found that optimism predicted better psychological coping post-HIV-diagnosis, as well as more perceived control over personal health and well-being. Thus, it appears that an optimistic outlook appears not only to be strongly positively related to a healthy immune system but also to better outcomes for people with compromised immune systems.
Optimism has also been investigated in health-related behaviors. In examining the risk of developing alcohol dependence, one study found that optimism protected against drinking problems in people with a family history of alcoholism (Ohannessian, Hesselbrock, Tennen, & Affleck, 1993). As family history is one of the greatest risk factors for developing substance dependence, optimism’s protective effects against its influence may be very important for public health efforts. Beyond helping to prevent substance use problems from developing, optimism may predict better outcomes from efforts to quit using. In a study by Strack, Carver, and Blaney (1987), optimism predicted greater success in treatment for alcohol abuse, with optimistic people more likely to remain in treatment and abstinent than pessimists. Pregnant women who are higher in optimism have been shown to be less likely to abuse substances while pregnant (Park, Moore, Turner, & Adler, 1997). Optimism appears to be an important factor in risky health behaviors: both whether people choose to engage in them and whether they choose to quit.
The studies described above share a common theme: optimism can have profound effects on a person’s physical health. The mere act of expecting positive outcomes and being hopeful can boost a person’s immune system, protect against harmful behaviors, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope following troubling news. Optimism can even predict a longer life. Among psychological constructs, optimism may be one of the most important predictors of physical health.
OPTIMISM AND PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH
Evidence suggests that optimism is important in coping with difficult life events. Optimism has been linked to better responses to various difficulties, from the more mundane (e.g., transition to college [Brissette, Scheier, & Carver, 2002]) to the more extreme (e.g., coping with missile attacks [Zeidner & Hammer, 1992]). Optimism appears to play a protective role, assisting people in coping with extraordinarily trying incidents. Furthermore, optimism has been found to correlate positively with life satisfaction and self-esteem (Lucas, Diener, & Suh, 1996). Segerstrom and Sephton (2010) also examined whether optimism predicted positive affect. Their hypothesis that changes in optimism would predict changes in positive affect was borne out, as increases in optimism were associated with increased positive affect, and vice versa. Interestingly, changes in optimism were not related to changes in negative affect. Thus, it appears that optimism is uniquely related to positive affect. This means that optimists are generally happier with their lives than pessimists.
Optimists are also able to recover from disappointments more quickly by attending to positive outcomes to a greater extent than negative ones. Litt and colleagues (1992) examined optimism and pessimism in couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts. In this study, 41 women and their husbands were interviewed two weeks prior to the IVF attempt and two weeks after a subsequent pregnancy test. Among the women who received a negative pregnancy test, optimists were better able than pessimists to cope with failed fertilization attempts by endorsing thoughts like “this experience has made our relationship stronger”. Pessimists were more likely to develop depressive symptoms and to feel personally responsible for the failure of the IVF attempt. This study suggests that optimists are better able to cope with disappointment by attending to positive aspects of the setback.
Optimists are also more likely to engage in problem solving when faced with difficulties, which is itself associated with increased psychological well-being (e.g., Taylor et al., 1992). HIV-positive patients who were more optimistic were more likely to plan their recoveries, seek further information, and avoid self-blame and escapism (both of which are associated with worse psychological functioning). Optimists also tend to accept the reality of difficult situations while also framing them in the best possible light (Carver et al., 1993). While pessimists tend to cope through denial and abandoning impeded goals, optimists rely on acceptance and the use of humor. Optimism may even play a role in the well-being of caregivers for people with chronic illnesses. Caring for a loved one with a severe, terminal illness can have serious negative effects on psychological well-being. However, optimism appears to protect against the worst of these effects, as optimism has been associated with less depression and greater well-being in studies of people caring for others with cancer (Given et al., 1993) or Alzheimer’s (Hooker et al., 1992). The association between optimism and coping with other, less extreme difficulties has been investigated, as well. For example, in one study of college freshman, measures of optimism, hope, and well-being were administered immediately upon beginning college (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992). At the end of the semester, measures of well-being were again administered. Optimism at the beginning of college predicted a smoother, psychologically healthier transition to college life, as well as larger groups of new friends.
With all of the research presented above, it is clear that optimism is a powerful tool in our repertoire to keep us healthy, happy, and alive. This news is great for people who are “natural” optimists, but what about others who don’t generally “look on the bright side”? Can “natural” pessimists learn to become more optimistic?
CAN A PESSIMIST BECOME AN OPTIMIST?
Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, began his career studying depression, stress, and anxiety. From his work in these areas, he discovered that the optimistic explanatory style described above acted as a protective factor against the development of depression when faced with difficult circumstances. For a psychologist, understanding what makes some people more immune to suffering is beneficial, but it’s also somewhat unsatisfying if those benefits cannot be extended to other people. Thus, Seligman set out to understand whether or not optimism could be learned. Various studies on changing explanatory styles were conducted, and the general theme of their findings was that optimism could, indeed, be learned (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, & Seligman, 1995). Following this line of research, a curriculum was developed for school children to attempt to inculcate in them an optimistic explanatory style. Children were selected as the population of interest as their personalities are more malleable than adults, as they are still forming and have not “solidified”. Thus, they represent a perfect population for testing the idea that psychological interventions can modify a person’s personality. The program, called the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), operates under the idea that instilling optimism in young people might serve to protect them from developing depressive symptoms in the future as sort of a “psychological immunization”. It relies on teachers and school counselors to administer 12 sessions of intervention, in which students are taught, among other things, how to change the types of thoughts that are consistent with the pessimistic explanatory style. Multiple studies have used strict randomized controlled trial criteria to evaluate the efficacy of this program. One study (Gillham et al., 2007) examined the use of the PRP in nearly 700 middle school students across three schools. Children were assigned to the PRP, to a program (Penn Enhancement Program [PEP]) that focused on stressors common in adolescent life, including self-esteem, peer pressure, and family conflict, or to a control condition in which students received no intervention. Students were assessed on measures of depressive symptoms and well-being two weeks after the final session and then every six months for the subsequent three years. In two of the three schools, 20% fewer students in the PRP condition reported elevated depressive symptoms three years post-intervention when compared to the control group, and nearly 10% fewer when compared to the PEP. This evidence seems to support the idea that optimism can be developed and nurtured in young people, though similar programs have not been developed for adults. More research is necessary, but it appears that optimism can be trained or learned. Thus, there is a promising argument to be made that anyone can learn to derive the numerous benefits of optimism.
CONCLUSIONS: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Countless studies have been conducted on optimism, and the vast majority of them support the same conclusions: optimism is healthy! Optimists live longer, have better functioning immune systems, cope better with difficult circumstances, and even have healthier babies. Are there downsides? There are a few. For instance, there is some evidence that under certain circumstances, optimism can actually suppress immune functioning. For a certain subset of the law student sample profiled in Segerstrom and Sephton (2010), more difficult stressors coupled with higher levels of optimism actually predicted worseimmune functioning (Segerstrom, 2006). The reasons for this are unclear, but one explanation might be that optimism was mostly linked to negative outcomes in law students who stayed close to home for law school. For these students, there might be greater competing pressures between social goals (spending time with friends and loved ones) and performing optimally in graduate school. With a finite amount of time and energy, coupled with the tendency of optimists to persevere in the face of difficulty, these students might simply be exhausting their body’s resources. Optimism has also been linked to health behaviors that can have negative consequences. For example, one study found that optimistic teenage girls were less likely than less optimistic peers to seek information about HIV testing. Furthermore, they were less likely to actually get tested (Goodman, Chesney, & Tipton, 1995). These examples indicate that optimism may have its downsides, but the good outcomes related to it far outweigh the negatives.
It’s apparent from the PRP studies that optimism can be nurtured in children, but what about adults? Studies that have investigated this question have relied on one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy to improve levels of optimism, but no large-scale intervention has yet been developed. Further research is necessary to determine whether non-clinical interventions can be used to foster optimism. It stands to reason that changing automatic negative thoughts should be possible in PRP-style interventions for adults, but this is a question that will need to be answered with solid data.
Ultimately, there is a large, scientifically valid body of research that indicates that optimistic people are generally better off in life than pessimists. This is a growing area of research, and the future of positive thinking research is promising.
The Philosophy of Mindfulness
Gratitude: Parent of all virtues
The great Roman orator Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Indeed, all of us can think of times in our lives when we’ve expressed heartfelt thanks to others for gifts of time and effort. Being grateful feels good. Gratitude, the state or feeling of being thankful, is an almost universal concept among world cultures. In fact, nearly all of the world’s spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of giving thanks to benefactors, supernatural or otherwise (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000†). Robert Emmons, a leader in the field of gratitude research, defines gratitude as the feeling that occurs when a person attributes a benefit they have received to another (Emmons, 2004). Feeling grateful has a number of benefits. Feelings of gratitude are associated with less frequent negative emotions and more frequent positive emotions such as feeling energized, alert, and enthusiastic (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). Beyond emotions, there is evidence that gratitude is associated with pleasant physical sensations, as well. Algoe and Haidt (2009) found that people experienced pleasant muscle relaxation when recalling situations in which they’d felt grateful. It is apparent that the mere act of giving thanks can have remarkable impact on a person’s well-being.
Taking time to appreciate your mother for all the care she provided growing up; reconnecting with an old friend to express your gratitude for always being there for you; seeking out and thanking a favorite teacher who helped you grow – specific acts of gratitude can have a variety of positive consequences, but what about people who are more grateful by nature than others? Given the centrality of thanksgiving in religious traditions, grateful people tend to be more spiritual than their less-grateful counterparts. People who are generally grateful report being more agreeable and less narcissistic compared with less grateful people. People who are more grateful also report being happier (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003).
CHARACTERISTICS OF GRATEFUL PEOPLE
What separates more grateful people from less grateful people? Recent evidence shows that a lot of the differences may be in how grateful people approach situations in which they’ve received some form of aid. When presented with the same short stories in which participants are told they’ve received help from another people, more grateful people tend to see their benefactors as more selfless and having exerted more effort to help, as well as placing higher value on the help they received (Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). To further support this hypothesis, these authors sought to replicate their findings in people’s daily lives. Students kept diaries of moments in their everyday environment when they were helped by another person and then asked to rate how selfless and sincere was the benefactor, how much effort did the benefactor expend, how grateful did they feel toward their benefactor, and how valuable was the help received Findings from these random moments in everyday life supported the hypothesis that more grateful people rate all of these factors higher than less grateful people. These findings suggest that grateful people interpret events in a unique way, and this interpretation style might account for the benefits extracted from gift giving experiences.
Extrapolating from the interpretations that differentiate more and less grateful people, Wood and colleagues (2008) used a longitudinal design to investigate how gratitude related to social support, stress, and depression. Longitudinal studies follow the same group of people over time, which allows researchers to examine temporal relationships between different variables. This has the benefit of strengthening hypotheses about causal relationships between variables. In this study, the researchers asked people to rate the overall gratitude, social support, depression, and stress in their life. Everyone was contacted again to complete the same questionnaires three months later. How grateful people initially felt predicted greater feelings of social support and less stress and depression three months later. Thus, it appears that grateful people find themselves feeling a sense of belonging and a relative absence of stress and depression. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that perceptions are more important than objective reality and grateful people possess benign interpretations of themselves, other people, and the world.
There are interpersonal benefits associated with gratitude, as well. Feelings of gratitude are associated with increased feelings of closeness and a desire to build or strengthen relationships with a benefactor (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Acts of gratitude require us to admire good characteristics of other people. Doing so encourages us to become closer to them. It has the added benefit of improving mood: reflecting upon the good another had done for them elevated the moods of participants in Algoe and Haidt’s (2009) study, who were asked to recall a time in which another person had assisted them in an exemplary way. In addition, the act of contemplating times in which another person had helped these participants resulted in participants expressing a desire for moral growth and to help others, themselves. Thus, it appears that being grateful can actually encourage people to do something good for another person. Gratitude, therefore, might have important benefits to society as a whole.
It has become clear that there are a number of advantages associated with being grateful. Among other things, grateful people are happier, have stronger feelings of social support, and feel less stressed and depressed. As being grateful has so many positive attributes, it seems that intervening to increase people’s levels of gratitude may be a good way to increase their feelings of well-being. In the next section, we discuss the research that has attempted to do just that.
BECOMING MORE GRATEFUL: DOES IT WORK?
While it’s clear that gratitude and well-being are connected, the research presented above is correlational in nature. What this means is that, while those studies tell us there is a connection between being grateful and being happy, it is impossible to say which one leads to the other. Based on that evidence, it could simply be that people who are already happier are more grateful. To better identify a causal relationship, carefully controlled experiments are required.
Fortunately, there has been an abundance of such research in the last decade. Emmons and McCullough (2003) conducted some of the first experimental studies of the effects of gratitude on well-being. In one study, college students were randomly placed into one of three conditions, (gratitude, hassles, or events), each of which lasted for nine weeks. Participants were given weekly packets in which they were to write down different things depending on their condition. In the gratitude condition, students were asked to write down several experiences for which they were grateful. In the hassles condition, students wrote down annoyances they experienced in the previous week. Finally, in the events condition, students wrote down a number of events that affected them in the past week. No instruction was given about what types of events to include, and responses ranged from “learned CPR” to “cleaned out my shoe closet”. The events condition acted as a neutral control condition to which the other two were compared. Students also completed a series of measures assessing physical symptoms and overall well-being. Students in the grateful condition reported significantly greater life satisfaction, greater optimism for the upcoming week, fewer physical symptoms, and, perhaps most surprisingly, exercised significantly more than students in either the events condition or the hassles condition. However, the gratitude intervention did not have a significant impact on positive or negative emotions. Thus, while being grateful caused students to assess their lives as more satisfying and made them more optimistic about their futures, it didn’t change the overall emotional tone of their daily lives.
A subsequent study replaced the weekly exercises from the previous study with daily diaries that were used for two weeks. This study kept the gratitude and hassles conditions, but replaced the events condition with instructions to write about ways in which the students were better off than other people. This study found a significant difference in levels of positive affect between people in the gratitude condition and people in the hassles condition, which is a bit like comparing healthiness between people who have eaten fruits and vegetables for a week with people who have eaten only cheeseburgers and fries. Based on these two studies, the causal link between gratitude and well-being is clearly present. However, it is thus far difficult to make the claim that being grateful makes a person happier.
While the research by Emmons and McCullough (2003) suggests that being more grateful doesn’t necessarily increase positive emotions more than not doing anything at all, that study was conducted with a sample of undergraduates. Perhaps children, whose brains and personalities are more malleable than those of college students, would derive greater benefit from grateful acts. To investigate this, Froh and colleagues (2008) examined the effects of counting blessings in a sample of sixth and seventh graders. Classes were assigned to the same conditions as in Emmons and McCullough (2003). Findings were similar to that study, as well, with the gratitude intervention resulting in happier students when compared to the students who wrote about their hassles, but not when compared to the neutral control students. However, these researchers examined other outcomes, as well. Froh and colleagues found that students who were told to be grateful were more excited about and satisfied with school than the students in the other conditions. Given the importance of school satisfaction in academic performance, this is a promising area of research for researchers and educators alike.
The studies covered thus far have shown a number of benefits associated with increasing gratitude in people of different ages. What they have not yet shown, however, is that making people more grateful makes them happier. To further investigate this area, Froh and colleagues (2009) hypothesized that gratitude interventions weren’t increasing levels of positive affect because many of the people who composed the samples in previous research were already happy. Perhaps people who are happier reach a “ceiling” point, beyond which it is very difficult to become even happier. This theory is consistent with research by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who found that people adapt quickly to positive changes in their lives and thus derive diminishing happiness returns from them. Perhaps, for people who are less happy to begin with, feelings of gratitude are more novel, and thus less happy people experience a greater benefit from gratitude exercises. Froh and colleagues (2009) examined the effects of expressed gratitude in students ranging from third to twelfth grade. Their findings indicated that the students with the lowest levels of positive affect received substantial benefits from expressing gratitude when compared to a neutral control condition. In other words, the students who had the most to gain in terms of positive emotion gained the most positive emotion, a surprising and exciting result. Furthermore, it’s possible that people with greater positive emotions to begin with are more open and receptive to changing their life orientation and enhancing their existing relationships. This includes being in a state of mind to be better attuned to positive events and more open to savoring them, integrating these experiences into their visions of how their overall lives appear. Taken in this context, it appears that, while nearly everyone derives benefits from giving thanks, different people experience different rewards.
Altogether, the studies profiled here have shown that gratitude can be increased through targeted interventions and that those increases have important implications for people’s well-being. But the question remains: can encouraging people to be more grateful really make them happier? Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) set out to answer this question with a four-week experimental study. In this study, students were asked to either count their blessings everyday or write about details of their lives. At two-week and four-week intervals, the participants completed “check-ups”, in which they rated their levels of well-being, positive emotions, and negative emotions. The most exciting result from this study is that people in the gratitude condition increased in positive affect when compared to the control condition. This is a novel result, as prior research had shown only that gratitude interventions were effective in increasing positive affect compared to exercises that asked people to write about bad things that had happened to them. However, a caveat applies: in these analyses, the gratitude condition was paired with another experimental condition, in which students were asked to envision their “best possible selves” in their ideal future lives. Both of these interventions resulted in higher levels of positive affect, but there was no difference between them. Furthermore, all conditions experienced a decrease in negative affect across the four weeks of the study, with no significant differences between them. While these results are exciting, it would be advantageous to attempt to replicate them in other samples to more fully establish an effect.
There is a possibility that the way in which the gratitude intervention is delivered matters. Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005) conducted a study in which they asked participants in the experimental condition to contemplate “things for which they are grateful” over the course of six weeks. Participants in the control condition completed only assessments of their happiness levels. In addition to the experimental and control condition, participants were asked either to complete the tasks once a week or three times a week. Results indicated that participants who completed the tasks only once a week showed increases in levels of well-being compared to the control group, but participants who completed the tasks three times a week showed no difference in happiness. A possible explanation for this could be that people who “counted their blessings” multiple times per week became bored with the intervention, and it thus lost its ability to increase happiness.
Each of the above studies has used multiple gratitude exercises to attempt to effect change. However, one study has examined the effects of a single gratitude-enhancing event: the letter of gratitude. Seligman and colleagues (2005) asked visitors to their website to write a letter to a person that they felt they had never properly thanked for a past kindness. These people were then asked to deliver this letter in person to their benefactor. These people experienced a substantial increase in happiness compared to people who wrote about their early memories. Furthermore, the increase was significant through one month post-intervention. These findings are perhaps the most excited yet profiled. However, that excitement must be tempered by the fact that the sample used in this study was visitors to a website about happiness. These people might be especially motivated to complete the exercise, or there may be important differences in people who seek out such tasks. While these results are promising, it will be important to attempt to replicate these findings in more typical samples. Fortunately, one can take away a positive spin from this study, as well: this experiment found substantial increases in happiness from a single intense gratitude-enhancing activity. While the increase in happiness was relatively short-lived, it suggests that there might be ways to use gratitude to improve happiness long term.
The take-home message from these studies is this: gratitude interventions have a number of positive effects, ranging from improving people’s feelings of thankfulness to increasing levels of school satisfaction. Each of these outcomes is valuable in its own right. However, the answer to the question, “Do gratitude interventions make people happier?” remains an (optimistic) “Maybe, but we don’t know for sure.”
CONCLUSIONS: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Of all the areas studied in the relatively young field of positive psychology, gratitude has perhaps the widest body of research. Grateful people have been shown to have greater levels of positive affect, a greater sense of belonging, and lower levels of depression and stress. Furthermore, efforts to make people more grateful have their own benefits. Gratitude is clearly an important part of a “good life”, and it therefore demands further careful research. Each of the studies profiled here has strong scientific merit, and their results should give us a sense of cautious optimism as we move forward in the study of thanksgiving.