You are here

By Martin E. P. Seligman
June 2003

I have spent a large part of my career looking at interventions for depression and anxiety and doing rigorous outcome studies to document which ones work and which are inert. Finding effective interventions for happiness is the keystone to building a responsible practice of Positive Psychology.

Intervention Efficacy Is Difficult to Measure

One of the main reasons that the field of psychotherapy had such halting progress over the last fifty years is wrapped up in the reluctance to test the efficacy of therapy and the unwieldiness of the process of such testing. Global therapies, like Psychoanalysis and Supportive-Expressive therapy, prove too difficult to standardize well and they are too long in duration to create plausible control groups for. We still do not have good efficacy information on whether they work. Specific therapies, like cognitive therapy or Prozac for depression or systematic desensitization for phobia have been thoroughly tested and are documented to be moderately effective, but this process cost literally millions of dollars and took hundreds of investigators more than a decade.

I have been involved up to my ears in this endeavor, and I wrote a book, What You Can Change & What You Can't, about the relative worth of the major drug and psychotherapy treatments for each major disorder.

Intervention Efficacy Must Be Measured

As we embark on interventions to make people happier, as opposed to just less miserable, I am determined to test the efficacy and effectiveness of each of the proposed interventions. For Positive Psychology to flourish we need interventions that work and we need a systematic program of interventions that is scientifically proven to raise the level of human well-being. Unless we test the efficacy of our interventions we will be appropriately labeled "just another boosterism" or even "charlatans." The royal road to determining if interventions work is the random-assignment controlled study, and this is precisely what I intend to do.

At the moment Tracy Steen, Chris Peterson, and I have assembled close to one hundred and fifty Positive Psychology exercises that purport to raise happiness. Some of these are very well-documented and evidence-based. Learned Optimism, gratitude, and forgiveness exercises, for example, have literally dozens of controlled outcome studies that validate them. Others, for example "writing your legacy" or "one door closes, another door opens," only have face validity and some anecdotal evidence behind them. I will be teaching the twenty best documented exercises in the six month Coaching course by telephone that began May 21 and will be repeated this Fall.

How We'll Test the Interventions

As of this writing one hundred and eighteen thousand people have registered at the website and taken various Authentic Happiness questionnaires; a few hundred new people register every day. This is a huge subject population, one that is no more unrepresentative than college sophomores or clinic volunteers, the usual subjects of therapy studies.

This link will allow us to do massive random assignment, controlled outcome studies of each intervention, and ultimately of the optimal intervention packages. So if you go to this link, you will be randomly assigned, for example, to a gratitude visit exercise. You will first take a series of well-being questionnaires, and then do the exercise, filling out an "exercise check" to document your actions. You will then re-take the questionnaires. Finally your levels of happiness will be tested in long term follow up. The gratitude visit results will be compared to many other exercises (some surely inert) and to dose-response parametric variations.

So it is my hope that we will bring the empirical validation of happiness interventions up to the present state of knowledge that drug and therapy interventions within a year or two.

Be Part of Positive Psychology History

Keep watching for the "Happiness Exercises" link on this website. I welcome your participating and your inviting your friends and clients to participate. It will be free; it will be fun; it will add a great deal of knowledge about what works; and it will likely raise your own level of well being.

© Copyright 2003 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.