Much psychological research has focused on understanding mental health disorders. And while that research continues, it is now joined by an exploration of the other side of the coin. Positive psychology is a treatment model that studies what makes us happy and concentrates on mental well-being, rather than on what causes us mental distress.
Throughout the world, people strive for happiness. A number of studies have found that attaining happiness has a positive impact on a range of important aspects of life, including job outcomes, social relationships and psychopathology.
How you increase happiness is an important topic of research. A Study in Emotion identified a number of strategies that positively impact well-being, including writing gratitude letters, savoring happy memories, and performing small acts of kindness.
With this research we improve our understanding of happiness. At the same time, increasing happiness is more complicated than it might appear. A recent study found that valuing happiness too strongly may actually undermine your ability to achieve it.
If we are going to understand happiness, we must consider how activities that improve happiness are used effectively in the real world. Acacia Parks and colleagues looked at this question, in an effort to understand how people use and benefit from happiness exercises outside of a research setting, in their homes and day-to-day life (Emotion, December, 2012).
Participants in the study tracked their use of happiness activities, as well as their general mood and sense of well-being as they went about their daily lives.
So who seeks happiness and what do they do in day-to-day life that works?
Happiness seekers come from a range of backgrounds and have unique goals, preferences and needs. Some people who seek happiness suffer from depression, while others do not experience psychological distress. Both groups benefited from positive interventions, but the type of intervention that was effective differed. For example, one symptom of depression is difficulty concentrating. Interventions that called for deep concentration on one activity were less effective for people who were depressed, but worked quite well for those who were not.
Personal preference for an activity didn't mean it would work. Participants in the study did not always choose the activities that were most effective for them. These activities may have been less effective because participants needed instruction to do them properly or because people chose activities that were familiar and comfortable, rather than trying unfamiliar exercises that might have a greater impact.
Variety is better. The more activities people chose the greater the effect on positive mood. Mixing it up may keep exercises from losing their impact.
Certainly there continue to be limitations to our understanding of how to improve our happiness. However, knowing how interventions work in the real world is essential to creating treatments that work.