The Science of Self-Help

Teasing out the hype from the help

One Size Does Not Fit All

Why the wrong self-help activity could actually make things worse

Twice a year, I visit my sister, Amanda, in Los Angeles. Amanda and I lead very different lives. She is a full-time mother of an 8-month-old. I marvel at the time and attention she spends making a wonderful life for my niece, and the passion she has for bettering herself so that she can more competently pursue this goal. I dedicate this very same attention to my work as a professor – writing, editing, teaching, mentoring, and conducting research. I am a parent, too, but my stepchildren are older (ages ten and thirteen). I did not raise them from a young age, and they spend a good part of their time living in Boston, so while parenting is the center of Amanda’s identity, for me it is only a piece. Sitting here in her living room, having become a part of her life for just this week, I feel perfectly inspired to write my first post to this blog on the topic of individual differences, and their impact on happiness.

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A major goal of my research (and the research of many scholars in my field) is to figure out how people can become happier. Lately, though, something has been bugging me. In research, we tend to focus on averages. We look at how well a group of people practicing an activity do, on average, compared to a group of people who do some other activity. However, there is a big problem with the idea of looking for some single way by which happiness can be achieved: it assumes that all people are the same. As I sit here next to my sister after a day of wearing, driving with, feeding, cuddling, and entertaining her baby, the preposterousness of this assumption is clear to me. People are different – they have different lifestyles, personalities, values, vulnerabilities, and sources of strength.

Ok, so things work better for some than for others. No big surprise there. So what? Worst case scenario, the person does something ineffective, figures out it's ineffective, and moves on, right? Well, several new studies suggest that assuming the existing of a “universal” happiness-increasing technique is not only incorrect, but possibly even harmful. This idea first came to my attention when I read a study by Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongrain. This was one of the first published studies in which personality variables were taken into account when testing an exercise’s efficacy. They focused on keeping a gratitude journal – a positive psychology activity that is, more so than any other, thought to be universally helpful. Of the variables they examined, the most was, as it turns out, is what they call “neediness.” People who are needy, as they defined it, endorse statements like “I become frightened when I feel alone” and “Without support from others who are close to me, I would be helpless.” While, on average, the gratitude activity was effective, people who scored high on this scale did not benefit. In fact, on some measures, they actually did worse than controls! This suggests that a poor match between person and activity isn't just ineffective; it could be harmful.

Now, back to me and my sister. Let's say she and I are reading the same self-help book, and that book tells us to imagine our "best possible selves" -- another activity that is often used in positive psychology. For me, imagining an amazing future version of myself is very uplifting; in fact, I am pretty sure I've been doing this my whole life. A picture of what I could be is how I motivate myself to work hard and reach my goals. I asked Amanda how she would react to this activity, however, and she felt quite differently. She explained to me that as a perfectionist, she spends a lot of time trying not to think like this; thinking about a "perfect" future self sets her up to think about the ways she may not meet that standard. This activity goes against the flexibility and resilience that she has worked very hard to nurture as she learns to roll with the ups and downs of parenting. For her, thinking about a "best possible self" does more harm for than good.

My overarching point is this: I will never recommend a single activity to readers of this blog and assume that “one size fits all.” It doesn’t. Wherever possible, I will use what we do know to make reasonable recommendations about who should (and should not) be doing a particular activity. To do so requires a step away from the literature – which generally does not acknowledge the importance of individual differences, except in passing – but I think that’s a step worth taking.

 

References

Sergeant, S., & Mongrain, M. (2011). Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 260-272. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2011.577089

 

Acacia Parks, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Hiram College. She develops and tests research-based ways of becoming happier.

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