The Science of Self-Help

Teasing out the hype from the help

Who Uses Self-help?

An exploration of the assumptions researchers make about self-help users.

When positive psychology began, it was all about helping "the other 80%"—those who don't have a major problem to fix, and who therefore receive very little attention in the research literature. At the time, Seligman (the father of the positive psychology movement) had suggested that there should be a science of becoming happier to mirror the science of treating mental disorders. It was because of this very suggestion that began my research career. It's a worthy goal, and in the past 10+ years, there has been a lot of progress towards learning how people can improve their own happiness.

However, there hasn't been much basic research just trying to learn what the "other 80%" is like. This is quite a contrast to clinical psychology, where research on how to treat a disorder is paralleled by research on who tends to get the disorder and why. In clinical psychology, basic and applied research interact to produce more solid science. This happens less in the study of happiness interventions; researchers have launched into a full-fledged investigation of how to make "the other 80%" happier, but we don't know where they are starting off!

To begin to answer this question, I did a study, which I recently published with Matt Della Porta, Russell Pierce, Ran Zilca, and Sonja  Lyubomirsky in Emotion (Study 1). We looked at a large dataset comprised of people who were perusing Martin Seligman's self-help website, Authentic Happiness; we had a link that said "Participate in Positive Psychology Research" on the side of the page, and people who followed that link found our study. We hoped that this sample would be representative of the types of people who are interested in becoming happier—at least, more representative than the typical study population, which consists of college students.

What we found was interesting:

1) Even though, as expected, the sample wasn't clinically depressed on average—they were, indeed, "the other 80%" in that regard—they were mildly depressed. Just because a person doesn't have "depression" doesn't mean that they aren't going through significant distress.

2) If you look more closely rather than at just the average, the sample was actually quite diverse. Some people were not depressed at all, and some were very, very depressed. So to say that happiness interventions are intended for "the other 80%," while true in some ways (if you look on average), is in other ways a major oversimplification.

Some happiness seekers start off reasonably happy, and others are pretty unhappy.
I wrote a previous blog post entitled, "One Size Does Not Fit All." Here, we see that lesson surface again. Happiness seekers are not homogenous—there are very distinct subgroups of happiness seekers, and one can imagine they might need very different things. Recent evidence suggests that people with different levels of clinical depression require different treatments (the paper is published online here). The same may be true of happiness seekers. People who start off very unhappy might need something very different from those who are already reasonably happy, but are looking to get happier.

The next important question is: what ARE those different needs? If you are very unhappy vs. reasonably happy, what self-help options should YOU seek? That will be the topic of my next post.

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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