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3 Drug-Free Ways to Optimize In-the-Moment Happiness

Reliving happy moments, savoring and "rose, thorn, bud" writing can boost mood.

Harvard Medical School researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Recovery Research Institute have identified three self-administered positive psychology writing exercises that help people in recovery from substance use disorders (SUD) increase their in-the-moment happiness without drugs or alcohol. Although the cohort of this randomized online survey included more than 500 adults who self-reported current or previous addictive behaviors, people from all walks of life can benefit from these daily writing exercises.

This paper by lead author Bettina Hoeppner and colleagues, “Do Self-Administered Positive Psychology Exercises Work in Persons in Recovery From Problematic Substance Use? An Online Randomized Survey,” was published online January 9 in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Hoeppner is an addiction scientist affiliated with the Center for Addiction Medicine at MGH and associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at HMS.

According to Hoeppner et al., this is the first large study designed to investigate if self-administered, text-entry-based positive psychology writing exercises can significantly improve in-the-moment happiness for people recovering from problematic substance use.

For their recent study, Hoeppner and her team surveyed 531 adults who self-described themselves as seeking or being in recovery from problematic substance use. The participants for this study were recruited from recovery-focused websites. The randomized online survey taken by each person in this study consisted of written positive psychology exercises and two other written control exercises that each took about four minutes.

Asad Nazir/Pexels
Source: Asad Nazir/Pexels

Immediately after completing each text-entry-based written exercise, study participants rated their "pre" and "post" degree of in-the-moment happiness before and after that particular writing exercise. (e.g., savoring, reliving happy memories, etc.)

The most significant increase of in-the-moment happiness was observed after the exercise called “Reliving Happy Moments.” The second most effective mood booster was an exercise called “Savoring” followed by something called the “Rose, Thorn, Bud” technique.

Three Writing Exercises That Can Increase In-the-Moment Happiness

  1. Reliving Happy Moments: During the “Reliving Happy Moments” exercise, participants were asked to select a personal photo that captured a specific happy memory from his or her past and to write a short statement that described the details of when and where the picture was taken along with brief details about what was happening in the photograph.
  2. Savoring: During the “Savoring” writing exercise, participants were asked to briefly describe two specific positive experiences they appreciated or noticed from the previous day.
  3. Rose, Thorn, Bud: During the “Rose, Thorn, Bud" writing exercise participants were asked to briefly describe a bright spot (rose) and a challenge/obstacle (thorn) from the preceding day, and to forecast something positive he or she anticipated would ‘blossom’ the following day (bud).

According to the authors, all of these text-entry-based exercises were quick, easy to self-administer, and significantly increased in-the-moment happiness. Importantly, these four-minute writing exercises were well-liked by participants. Additionally, 93 percent of study participants said they would be able to weave these positive psychology writing exercises into their daily routine.

"Thorn, Thorn, Thorn" Writing Exercises Decrease In-the-Moment Happiness

On the flip side, Hoeppner and colleagues found that an exercise called “3 Hard Things” (which could also be called “Thorn, Thorn, Thorn”) made people feel less happy. During the "3 Hard Things" exercise, participants were asked to write about three negative experiences they'd dealt with the preceding day. Unlike the aforementioned three exercises that increased in-the-moment happiness, the "3 Hard Things" writing exercise significantly decreased in-the-moment happiness.

"Addiction scientists are increasingly moving beyond the traditional focus on reducing or eliminating substance use by advocating treatment protocols that encompass quality of life. Yet orchestrated positive experiences are rarely incorporated into treatment for those with substance use disorders," Bettina Hoeppner said in a statement. “These findings underscore the importance of offsetting the challenges of recovery with positive experiences. Recovery is hard, and for the effort to be sustainable, positive experiences need to be attainable along the way."

Taking a few minutes to perform these positive psychology exercises on a daily basis could increase moment-to-moment and day-to-day happiness for all of us. For those of us in recovery or a 12-step program, sustaining a positive mood while you're taking it "one day at a time" could increase the odds of a successful long-term recovery from problematic substance use.

Recalling Happy Memories Can Reduce the Risk of Debilitating Depression

The recent Harvard study (Hoeppner et al., 2019) on self-administered positive psychology 'happiness' exercises that boost mood dovetails with another recent study from the University of Cambridge (Askelund et al., 2019) which found that recalling happy memories reduces vulnerability to depression.

In an email correspondence with Adrian Dahl Askelund last week, I asked if he had practical advice for how someone could improve his or her ability to recall specific positive events and happy memories on demand. He responded, "One increasingly popular habit which could potentially help with increasing access to positive memories is journaling."

The three beneficial writing techniques described in this post—reliving happy moments, savoring, and "rose, thorn, bud"—offer what experts call "positive memory specificity" of unique positive events that appear to increase in-the-moment happiness for adults in recovery or seeking help for problematic substance use. Based on other research findings, one could speculate that these three positive psychology techniques have the power to help everybody boost their mood on demand and may also fortify resilience against depression across a lifespan. (See "Recalling Positive Memories May Reduce Risk of Depression.")


Bettina B. Hoeppner, Melissa R. Schick, Hannah Carlon, and Susanne S. Hoeppner. "Do Self-Administered Positive Psychology Exercises Work in Persons in Recovery From Problematic Substance Use? An Online Randomized Survey." Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (First published online: January 9, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.jsat.2019.01.006

Adrian Dahl Askelund, Susanne Schweizer, Ian M. Goodyer, and Anne-Laura van Harmelen. “Positive Memory Specificity Is Associated with Reduced Vulnerability to Depression.” Nature Human Behaviour (First published online: January 14, 2019) DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0504-3

Jefferson A. Singer and Kathie Halbach Moffitt. "An Experimental Investigation of Specificity and Generality in Memory Narratives." Imagination, Cognition and Personality (First published: March 1, 1992) DOI: 10.2190/72A3-8UPY-GDB9-GX9K