I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure. — Mae West
We should all take Ms. West to heart when choosing positive interventions — for ourselves or others — according to two studies recently described by Stephen Schueller in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Positive interventions are exercises designed to increase well-being. A 2009 meta-analysis by researchers Nancy Sin and Sonja Lyubormirsky shows that several positive interventions reliably and significantly achieve that goal and also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
So the question becomes, you can boost your happiness, but can you sustain it?
Yes. By doing what you like and liking what you do.
They work, but do we do them?
Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubormirsky’s research shows you are more likely to sustain positive change by changing your actions and patterns than by improving your external circumstances. We adapt to life’s gifts and losses more quickly than you might expect. But a new hobby, habit, or relationship can generate a novel stream of positive experience that is happily hard to get used to. Positive interventions are proven foundations for those kinds of new practices.
That presumes that you actually practice your new habit. Sometimes I still don’t know why it seems hard to do things that 1) I know are good for me, and 2) also even feel good … but these new virtues face stiff competition from my comfortable, effortless, deeply-engrained habits.
A Structure for Choosing Positive Interventions
Stephen Schueller, who conducted his research at the University of Pennsylvania, is the first researcher to develop a structure for recommending positive interventions based on a person’s preferences for prior interventions – described as “similar to Netflix for movies.” The comparison is perceptive. In an entirely unrelated effort, Netflix awarded $1 million in 2009 to a team of researchers who developed an algorithm that successfully predicted film recommendations based on a user’s past preference. Pleasure is a powerful measure and paradigm.
- Active-constructive responding
- Using signature strengths
- Gratitude visit
- Life summary
- The blessings journal
He found that people are more likely to stick with, and benefit from, exercises they say they enjoy, and that their preference predicted what other interventions might work best for them. Perhaps that seems unsurprising, but the empirical test is an important one for therapists and positive psychology practitioners looking to create the best fit and nurture the most effective outcomes for their clients.The impact is meaningful. Schueller found that for all but one intervention, higher ratings of a person’s preference for an exercise corresponded to better adherence, a larger increase in happiness, and more significant decrease in depressive symptoms for that person.
He also found that the positive interventions tested formed three groups, based on preference:
- People who liked active-constructive responding also responded better to savoring.
- People who liked using signature strengths also responded better to a gratitude visit.
- People who liked writing a life summary also responded better to the blessings journal.
The findings are preliminary and open to interpretation. Schueller proposes the effects may be based on a kind of time-preference continuum:
“One possibility is that the grouping of exercises found in this study is based on the time-orientation of the exercises. The active-constructive responding and savoring exercises both attempt to build off present experiences, intensifying and elongating either a pleasurable moment or interpersonal interaction. Both the life summary and blessings exercises involve reflection on past experiences. Lastly, both the strengths and gratitude visit require future planning (p. 199).”
Whatever genuinely increases your well-being: just do it, at least twice, three times to make sure. One of the most important findings I see in a range of research is that happiness is a verb. Love, courage, virtue, gratitude, friendship, marriage — despite their luminous labels — only come alive in action.
Schueller, S., (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 (3), 192-203.
Sheldon, K. M., Abad, N., Ferguson, Y., Gunz, A., Houser-Marko, L., Nichols, C. P., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). Persistent pursuit of need-satisfying goals leads to increased happiness: A 6-month experimental longitudinal study. Motivation and Emotion, 34(1), 39-48.
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487. doi:10.1002/jclp.20593