Are there really steps people can take to increase their overall happiness and life satisfaction?
For the past decade, researchers in the positive psychology movement have tried to identify effective, everyday strategies for making people happier. Recently, researchers Nancy L. Sin and Sonja Lyubomirsky reviewed 51 positive psychology interventions, or PPIs, scrutinizing dozens of studies on exercises like writing letters of gratitude, forgiving others, and practicing positive thinking. Their object was to tease apart which, if any, of these and other PPIs actually work, determine what kind of PPIs are most effective, and discover who most benefits from them.
Their results, published in May in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, suggest that, by and large, PPIs are actually quite effective, significantly boosting feelings of well-being while decreasing depression. The researchers found PPIs to be most effective when they rely on a combination of cognitive and behavioral strategies—that is, not only helping people change their patterns of behavior, but also helping them change their way of seeing the world. This could be accomplished through the practice of mindfulness (building awareness of one's thoughts and feelings, without judging them) or by cultivating feelings of gratitude, both of which seem to give people a brighter overall outlook and shield them against depressive blows.
The study found certain people benefit more from PPIs: Depressed individuals, people motivated to try PPIs on their own, and those introduced to PPIs in individual counseling show greater happiness and fewer symptoms of depression than those who are not depressed or in group therapy settings. Researchers also found that as people age, the more they tend to gain from practicing PPIs. Similarly, those who take a "shotgun approach," meaning that they use multiple PPIs, also enjoy greater benefits, as do those who exert high levels of effort to stick with PPIs.
Sin and Lyubomirsky also examined cross-cultural differences in the effects of PPIs, finding that more individualistic cultures, like in the West, fare better with PPIs, possibly because most PPIs encourage people to focus inwardly on themselves, such as by writing out their own personal goals. However, the authors speculate that PPIs can be creativity transformed into culturally appropriate practices for people in more collectivist cultures by fostering prosocial behaviors, like acts of kindness, gratitude, and compassion, which have been linked to personal happiness.
"The field of positive psychology is young, yet much has already been accomplished that practitioners can effectively integrate into their daily practices," write Sin and Lyubomirsky in their paper. "As our meta-analysis confirms, positive psychology interventions can materially improve the well-being of many."