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Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions

Martin E. P. Seligman
University of Pennsylvania
Tracy A. Steen
University of Pennsylvania
Nansook Park
University of Rhode Island
Christopher Peterson
University of Michigan

Published in 'American Psychologist', 60(5), July-August 2005

This study tested 5 purported happiness interventions and 1 plausible control exercise.  It was delivered via the Internet and could be completed within one week.  A convenience sample of participants were recruited from visitors to the website created for Martin Seligman's (2002) book 'Authentic Happiness'. The study was described on the site as an opportunity to help test new exercises designed to increase happiness.  Over the course of approx. 1 month, 577 adults (42% male; 58% female) took part in the study.  64% were between the ages of 35 and 54 years.  Only 4% of the participants did not have education or vocational training after high school (one limitation of the study). The sample was largely White (77%).  Of the 577 participants who completed baseline questionnaires, 411 (71%) completed all five follow-up assessments.  Only those participants who completed all follow-up questionnaires were included in the analyses.  One of the exercises focused on building gratitude, two focused on increasing awareness of what is most positive about oneself, and two focused on identifying strengths of character.  The effects of these exercises were compared with a plausible placebo control exercise, where participants were asked to write about their early memories.  

The study found that 3 of the interventions lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms.  The exercises that focused on increasing awareness of what is most positive about oneself had the longest lasting effects.  Firstly, participants who were asked to consider three good things that went well each day demonstrated increased levels of happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months after they completed the exercise.  Secondly, those who completed an online questionnaire to identify their top five character strengths, and were then asked to use one of these in a new and different way every day for one week, also reported increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for a period of six months.  And thirdly, the exercise that focused on building gratitude, where participants were given one week to write and deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked, produced large positive changes for a period of one month.

Regardless of their assigned exercise, participants were only required to perform the task for a period of one week, however many continued the exercises on their own and their happiness scores at subsequent follow-ups indicated that these individuals were the happiest.  The authors of this study suggest that positive interventions can supplement traditional interventions designed to relieve suffering and may someday be the practical legacy of positive psychology.    


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