Human beings seem to have an innate desire to pursue happiness. In fact, research has determined that there are aspects of personality that are considered to be strengths of character aiding in happiness that are actively encouraged in all parts of the world, regardless of culture, gender, and religious or educational variations. Trait endorsement was measured in 40 different countries and the highest endorsements went to traits such as gratitude, open-mindedness, fairness, kindness and authenticity. Emphasis on these traits was highly correlated across the 40 countries as well as all 50 states in the United States, with slight variation for religious preferences in the southern states. It seems that fostering traits such as gratitude can help improve mental health by reducing suffering and increasing satisfaction with life.
Research conducted to test the possibility of happiness inducing interventions was able to successfully demonstrate how certain types of behaviors were able to reduce depression in most cases. Happiness is defined by the authors as a three pronged concept revolving around positive emotion, engagement in life and meaning in life.
Participants in the study were recruited online, asked to fill out an initial questionnaire to measure their depression levels. They were then randomly assigned a group and given an intervention to perform. There were five possible week long interventions, each comprising their own group as well as one control — or placebo — group. The placebo group was meant to write about early memories every day. Another group was asked to write three things in each day that went well while yet another group was asked to identify a situation where they had done well and review the situation daily, reflecting on the strength characteristic that they displayed while succeeding in this incident. The fourth group was given a survey that identified their strengths and was asked to use one of their top five strengths in a unique manner daily. The fifth group was a variation of the fourth that asked the participants to use their top strengths more often each day. Finally, the last group was asked to remember an incident where someone was very helpful but not properly thanked, write a letter to the person thanking them, then deliver it in person.
The results varied, depending on the task, but a few of the interventions helped participants mental health to improve, and there was evidence that gratitude can produce the quickest results in increasing happiness.
All groups showed an improvement in mood after the first week follow up. However, after this point the results diverged into different patterns, with the placebo group, the group that revisited a success and the group that was told to use their strengths more often returning to baseline levels of happiness and depression after the first month.
The gratitude group showed the most drastic increase in happiness than any other group during the initial assessments but had returned to their baseline emotional levels after a month.
The groups that were asked to use their strengths in new ways and that were asked to list three good things daily showed more gradual decreases in depression but the results accumulated over more time than other interventions and lasted into the six month follow up surveys.
It was found that the longevity in the alleviation of depressive symptoms was due to the fact that those two exercises were immediately rewarding and easily incorporated into daily life. Despite being instructed to practice their interventions for one week, nearly every participant in these groups continued to practice these techniques for the entire six month period. It was thought that this was a major factor in the increased happiness and longevity of the results.
The conclusion of the study was that mental health can improve notably with simple acts of gratitude and be sustained with interventions aimed at appreciating and practicing individual strengths and successes. Recently, the gratitude portion of the study was recreated by another group who wanted to test the initial results. The experiment and results can be viewed in the video below.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard