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Positive Interventions:
More Evidence of Effectiveness

By Martin E.P. Seligman
September 2004

The overriding goal of Positive Psychology is to increase the tonnage of happiness on the planet. The first step in this process is reliable measurement of positive emotion and positive traits.

Over the last decade that aspect of the science has made impressive strides. Reasonably well-validated tests with acceptable psychometric properties now exist and many of these can be used (at no cost) on this website: (http://www.authentichappiness.org/). An important methodological breakthrough for measuring day-to-day subjective well-being will soon appear in the journal Science, authored by Danny Kahneman (Positive Psychology's only Nobel Prize winner), Alan Krueger, David Schkade, Norbert Schwartz, and Arthur Stone. I will report on it in my next newsletter.

The second step in the process is classification. We now have a serviceable classification of positive traits, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, published by Oxford University Press and the American Psychological Association this year. Christopher Peterson is the author and he was generous enough to let me place my name on the cover after his. This is the DSM-I of Positive Psychology. While we now have a consensual classification of traits, we still lack an authoritative classification of the positive states, although theories abound. Such a classification may await further developments in understanding the processes of positive emotion.

The third step in the process is interventions that work to increase positive emotion and positive traits. I reported in an earlier newsletter that a large scale random assignment placebo controlled study of users of this website found that three interventions reliably increased positive emotion and decreased depressive symptoms with six month follow-up. The three blessings exercise, the gratitude visit, and identifying and using signature strengths in a new way each had lasting effects. This was particularly impressive because participants only did one exercise and for just one week. Remember that in coaching or therapy an entire package of exercises is usually acted on over a period of months. We continue to test new interventions in the random assignment placebo controlled design, and we aim to eventually create and validate a package, a sequence of exercises that markedly increase happiness lastingly.

One new strand of evidence has just emerged from an unusual place: Authentic Happiness Coaching (http://www.authentichappinesscoaching.com/). In this six month twice-a-week course, I have been teaching people, largely professional coaches, clinical psychologists, teachers, professors, social workers, and parents, the measurement, theory and interventions in Positive Psychology. The participants do one exercise a week themselves, and if they have clients, they try the exercise with their clients. The anecdotal feedback has been very good. I have received literally hundreds of "case reports" of increases in happiness and decreases in depression.

Dr. Tayyab Rashid wondered if merely taking the course itself would increase happiness and decrease depression. So he looked at the people who took the tests before the course and again after they graduated. Of the 194 people who took the life satisfaction test before and after, their happiness scores went up markedly (t=5.36, p<.0001). Of the 102 people who took the depression test before and after, their depressive symptoms dropped significantly (from the mild range on average down into the nondepressed range) (t=2.36, p<.02). Caution is in order: This is an uncontrolled result, since we don't know about the graduates of the course (about 300 additional people) who did not take the tests twice. But we can speculate that learning about Positive Psychology, trying the exercises on oneself, and teaching them to others, may in itself decrease depression and increase life satisfaction.

This is a very good reason to teach Authentic Happiness to others. It may make you happier.


© Copyright 2004 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.

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