Happiness study, happiness video

There's a lovely 7-minute feel-good video that purports to reproduce a scientific study that, the video says, proves that the more gratitude you express, the happier you are. It's a lovely video, well worth watching if you like this sort of thing (as I do), and heartwarming and tear-jerking (in a good way).

But as far as I can tell from a cursory look at the 2005 study (PDF), the makers of the video are misrepresenting what the study says.

The study had each participant do one of the following six exercises:

Placebo control exercise: early memories
Participants were asked to write about their early memories every night for one week.
Gratitude visit
Participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.
Three good things in life
Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day [...] every night for one week. In addition they were asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.
You at your best
Participants were asked to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on the personal strengths displayed in the story. They were told to review their story once every day for a week and to reflect on the strengths they had identified.
Using signature strengths in a new way
[Participants] were asked to take our inventory of character strengths online at www.authentichappiness.org and receive individualized feedback about their top five (“signature”) strengths (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005). They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.
Identifying signature strengths
This exercise was a truncated version of the one just described without the instruction to use signature strengths in new ways. Participants were asked to take the survey, to note their five highest strengths, and to use them more often during the next week.

And here's what the study found:

Two of the exercises—using signature strengths in a new way and three good things—increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months [especially when participants continued doing them past the one-week test period]. Another exercise, the gratitude visit, caused large positive changes for one month [but not longer]. The two other exercises and the placebo control created positive but transient effects on happiness and depressive symptoms. Not surprisingly, the degree to which participants actively continued their assigned exercise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week period mediated the long term benefits.

More specifically, the gratitude visit exercise showed large increases in happiness for the first month, but by the time of the three-month followup checkin, “participants in the gratitude visit condition were no happier or less depressed than they had been at baseline.” Whereas in the three good things exercise, the participants “began to show beneficial effects at [...] the one month follow-up[...], and they stayed happier and less depressed at the three month and six month follow-ups.” And similarly for the using signature strengths in a new way exercise—less immediate effect than gratitude visit, but greater long-term effect.

So. The study did not, as the video claims, show that the more gratitude you express, the happier you are, and it wasn't (as the video implies) about telling someone who's been an important influence on you how great they are. The gratitude visit exercise was specifically about thanking someone who's been kind to you. And it didn't result in longterm increases in happiness.

I'm all for doing the thing shown in the video! Think about someone who's been a big influence on you; write down good stuff about them, call them up and read it to them. (But if you do this, maybe do a better job than the people in the video did of introducing it, because I suspect most people's first reaction on receiving such a phone call would be “OMG, what's wrong?”) But it might be best not to do this with the expectation that it'll increase your longterm happiness nor that you're doing what the study did.

Still, the video is worth watching. Very sweet.

I'm kinda confused by a couple of things in the study. In particular, it's not clear to me what it means by “began to show beneficial effects at [...] the one month follow-up”—does that mean that the three good things exercise didn't show beneficial effects before the one-month followup? And it suggests that the people who had the greatest longterm benefit, from the two exercises that produced longterm benefit, were the people who kept going after the one-week test period, but it doesn't talk about people who kept going with the other exercises. In particular, it doesn't say whether anyone did the gratitude visit exercise more than once. If the effects last for a month, then could you do a gratitude visit once a month and get ongoing positive effects? The study doesn't say.

The study also points out that its participants all fell within a certain demographic; clearly, further study is indicated. (And I imagine further study has been in the past eight years since this study, but I haven't taken the time to look that up.) Also, I can't tell whether or where the study was published, or whether it's been peer-reviewed. But I found the results intriguing nonetheless.

Some friends of mine go around the table at dinnertime and each say one good thing that happened that day. It's not quite the same thing as in the exercise, but it seems similar to me. I've liked it when I've visited them for dinner, but was never particularly inclined to do this on my own; but maybe I should give it a try.

5 Responses to “Happiness study, happiness video”

  1. Vardibidian

    Interesting! As you may know, our family has been doing Three Good Things at dinner every day (or nearly) since—I was going to say well before 2005, but now that I think about it, we must have started doing it daily in late 2005 or early 2006. We don’t do a causal explanation for each Good Thing, though. Maybe I should read the study’s details to see what they’re doing wrong…


    • Jed

      Oh, oops, somehow I had misremembered your family doing it as one good thing, instead of three. Thanks for the correction!

      Unfortunately, the study doesn’t give details about the exercises; it says to contact the authors for more info. I’m pretty dubious about the causal-explanation part, but they seemed to think it was important.

  2. irilyth

    Huh, we do Positive Thing at dinner every night; I don’t know where we got the idea from, possibly you guys. :^) We don’t do anything causal, and don’t really have any other rules about what the positive things can (or have to) be.

    I’m confused about the gratitude thing: Was the study measuring the lasting effect of *one* act of gratitude? Because that seems different than the proposition “expressing gratitude more often will make you happier”. In particular, if the study found that one expression of gratitude makes you a lot happier for a short period of time, that seems very consistent with the proposition that you should express gratitude more often — because just doing it once doesn’t have any lasting effect. But if doing it once a week makes you a lot happier for a week, you should clearly do it weekly. :^)

    • Jed

      As far as I can tell, yes, the study was looking at only one act of expressing gratitude, and only in a specific format. I’m not at all clear on why they didn’t look at doing it more than once—maybe none of the participants did it more than once? The study didn’t tell the participants to continue anything beyond the first week, but in the exercises that worked longterm, the participants voluntarily chose to continue beyond the first week.

      In other words, the study is (as far as I can tell) sparse on details about differences between the exercises that might make a significant difference in outcomes. It’s possible that later work by the same people has provided more info, dunno.

    • Jed

      PS: In case my phrasing was unclear, the line “the more gratitude you express, the happier you are” comes from the video, not the study. I was saying that the study doesn’t make a claim on either side of that statement, while the video claims that it’s true and that the study proves it. Basically, in my view the makers of the video overinterpreted the results of the study and presented their interpretation a little sloppily.


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