Who are the happiness seekers?

Who are the happiness seekers?

Acacia Parks is one of the leading lights in happiness and positive psychology research. I'm happy to share with you this article she wrote and published in a recent newsletter from the International Positive Psychology Association (HERE). 

The Happiness Seekers: who are they? 

This article is a contribution from Acacia Parks, Assistant Professor at Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio, USA. Acacia Parks is a leading researcher in the area of positive interventions. Acacia Parks presented "Positive Interventions. New Frontiers" at the 2nd World Congress on Positive Psychology/WCPP. This article below describes new initiatives following the WCPP.

Positive psychology is, and likely always will be, an applied field. We study happiness with the explicit goal of determining how best to increase it, and in the 10+ years since the field’s inception, we have seen significant advances in the science of increasing happiness. However, in one of my talks at the 2011 World Congress, I argued that in our efforts to keep pace with the demand for empirically-based self-help, we have overlooked some important fundamental questions. Yes, we have discovered an array of positive interventions that, on average, reliably increase happiness. However, we don’t know who happiness seekers are. We have, in effect, designed a variety of interventions for an audience whose identity remains a mystery. It’s like trying to cook a multi-course meal without knowing who will eat it. There’s a decent chance that, if it’s well-made, anyone will like it, but then again, people differ in immediate factors (i.e., how hungry they are) as well as more general individual differences (i.e., food preferences, allergies, etc).

Translated into intervention terms, if we don’t know how distressed a person is, or what their preferences are, the best we can come up with is a blind guess. And while it turns out that a blind guess isn’t so bad – as I said above, on average, these interventions do work – the problem is that evidence is starting to emerge that there are some people for whom certain positive interventions may backfire. Positive interventions are not just ineffective for these people; they actually make things worse! So while it’s all well and good to say an activity works "on average," realistically, it would be nice to know who the activity will harm so that we can adjust our recommendations accordingly.

The first step in understanding this is to look at the characteristics of happiness seekers and to see whether it makes sense to take an average across happiness seekers, as most intervention studies do. In a 2011 paper I co-authored with Sonja Lyubomirsky, Matt Della Porta, Russell Pierce and Ran Zilca, we asked whether there were distinct subtypes of happiness seekers in a representative sample from the internet. We found that while samples from most positive intervention studies contain average depressive symptom levels in the mild to moderate range (about 14 on a 60 point scale; subclinical, but enough to cause some impairment), happiness seekers in our sample were distributed bimodally. In other words, about half were in the "non-depressed" range, and the other half in the "moderate-severe" range. Whereas members of the former, which we called the "non-distressed" cluster, were more likely than not to have no history of serious depression, members of the "distressed" cluster were more likely to be currently depressed.

You might be thinking: "Ok, half of happiness seekers are pretty depressed. So what?" Well, there are two big problems here. First, positive intervention research tends to lump people with low, medium and high levels of depressive symptoms together into a single mildly-depressed-on-average sample. Second, findings from two recent studies (Sergeant & Mongrain, 2011; Sin, Della Porta & Lyubomirsky, 2011) suggest that, at least for some depressed individuals (we don’t totally understand which ones), certain positive interventions (particularly those that are gratitude-based) are not a good idea. Intrigued by these findings, I did an informal survey on the FRIENDS-OF-PP listserv, and I heard several examples of situations where other positive interventions – not just those that center on gratitude – have "backfired." This matches with my own experiences, wherein meaning-focused activities in particular (like the "Life Summary"; Seligman, Rashid & Parks, 2006) have been characterized as "depressing" for some clients. There is mounting evidence that these activities are by no means a "one-size-fits-all" solution – like any tool, they are only useful when applied properly.

Until we fully understand exactly when it is and is not appropriate to use each of the positive interventions that have found their way into everyday practice, we are in a precarious position. We are, in effect, using a set of power tools for which there is no manual; we must use the tools cautiously and responsibly until we understand them well enough to write the manual ourselves. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking, "We’re targeting happiness! It’s not like we can do any damage." Recent research is starting to tell us that we absolutely can do damage. So let’s move forward slowly, carefully, and with an eye out for cases where positive interventions don’t work – this type of knowledge can only strengthen the field as we become more and more able to use positive interventions optimally.

For more please visit: www.hiram.edu/psychology/parks.html 

Acacia Parks,

Assistant Professor of Psychology

Hiram College, US