I like the happiness stuff, how can you not. It is simple, positive and easy to apply. Sometimes I like a break from all the deep stuff that demands so much more from me both as a person and a therapist. It has certainly seen rapid growth both in research and commercial exploitation.
I must admit I find some of the research confusing. I remember reading a New Scientist article (can’t find the link now) on happiness indicating that most of your happiness is genetically determined, around about a whopping fifty percent. The next biggest contributor off the block at two per cent (yes only two per cent) was marriage. This is actual marriage (ring on the finger stuff) not just living together.
At the same time there is some compelling research on the use of very simple techniques that appear to make significant differences to both people’s levels of depression and their perceived levels of happiness. This research challenges those therapeutic ideas that the harder and deeper the work the longer lasting and more real the change. Marty Seligman and others published a good review, in the American Psychologist, on the current state of happiness research with a focus on demonstrating the utility of some very specific and simple techniques. They identify two techniques as being particularly effective over the long term (six months).
Three good things in life: Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, they were asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.
Using signature strengths in a new way: Participants were asked to take our inventory of character strengths online at Authentic Happiness and to receive individualized feedback about their top five signature strengths. They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.
This signature strength exercise has similarities with some of the values based exercise from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as well as some of the behavioural activation techniques.
The outcomes for these techniques are graphed below. Remember participants only did the exercise for one week.
We found specific interventions that make people lastingly happier, and we believe this study holds implications for the future of positive interventions and perhaps for clinical interventions. We operationalized and compared five happiness interventions to a placebo control in a sizable random-assignment experiment, and found that two interventions—writing about three good things that happened each day and why they happened, and using signature strengths of character in a new way made people happier (and less depressed) up to six months later....
......It is far from “happily ever after,” but our results suggest that lasting increased happiness might be possible even outside fairy tales.
The paper goes to acknowledge the limitations of the research (well educated, white, mildly depressed sample) but adds a plea for these techniques to be considered as adjunct to normal therapy.
We cannot resist the speculation that happiness exercises may prove therapeutic in depressive disorders. It is important to note that these interventions also reduced depressive symptoms lastingly, and in other studies we are finding that this effect is massive. Typically in the therapeutic endeavor, we tackle disorders head-on: We teach anxious people to relax, depressed people to argue against depressing thoughts, people with conflict to gain insight into the sources of conflict, and people with obsessive–compulsive disorders to find out that disasters do not ensue if they do not perform their rituals. In fact, an unspoken premise of all talk therapy is that it is beneficial to talk about one’s troubles and to overcome them by confronting them. We see positive interventions as a supplement to therapy focused on troubles, another arrow in the quiver of the therapist. Psychotherapy as defined now is where you go to talk about your troubles and your weaknesses; perhaps in the future it will also be where you go to build your strengths.