Is It Possible to Program Your Happiness?

New research shows a simple trick to talk yourself into being happier.

Posted Feb 11, 2020

Happiness researchers base their work on the fundamental idea that psychology needs a better understanding of the factors that help people feel better. Rather than just focus on psychological disorders or problems, happiness studies use positive psychology as their theoretical basis.

From your own experience, you know that life goes better when you’re happy than when you’re not. You wake up in the morning eager to start your day, focusing on what you’d like to achieve. However, a thought enters your head reminding you that you have some unpleasant tasks ahead of you in the coming hours. Perhaps, instead, you remember an argument you had with a close friend the day before, filling you with regret and disappointment in yourself. Your good mood disappears, and your happiness starts to plummet.

What if you could overcome these detours to your feelings of well-being by shifting your focus away from those negative thoughts? Researchers in positive psychology propose that you can increase your happiness levels by thinking not about what’s going wrong but instead about what could go right.

The “best possible self” intervention is a simple exercise in which you visualize your best possible future. Going one step further, you could also take a few minutes and write down what you would consider your best possible future life. A “hoped-for possible self” is, as the term implies, the sense of who you could be rather than who you are at the moment. On the negative side, a “feared” possible self is one you dread.

According to a new study by Johannes Bodo Heekerens and Michael Eid of the Freie Universität Berlin (2020), there is considerable evidence suggesting that the best-possible-self intervention, in which you focus on your hoped-for possible self, can improve feelings of optimism and positive affect.

However, the German authors note that studies evaluating the long-term benefits haven’t been established. Moreover, studies measuring the impact of this intervention haven’t always defined their outcome measures in precise enough terms, such as distinguishing between momentary changes in affect vs. affect in the past week. Adding to this problem, previous researchers haven’t always distinguished among the more nuanced aspects of positive outcomes such as life satisfaction, optimism, and happiness.

The purpose of the Heekerens and Eid study was to conduct a more rigorous evaluation of the literature, known as a meta-analysis, to see whether the best-possible-self intervention would stand up to closer scrutiny.

To be included in the meta-analysis, the intervention needed to involve a writing assignment rather than visualization and had to involve random assignment to treatment and an active control group (one that engaged in a different writing task). The possible self intervention had to be the only one being tested, and the participants could not be drawn from a clinical population. The outcome time frame needed to be specified, and the measure used to assess the impact of the intervention needed to be reliable and valid. The German research team introduced other controls as well, such as the length of the intervention itself and whether participants engaged in any visualization before or after the writing task.

This rigorous screening resulted in 34 usable studies (out of a potential 249) involving a total of 1,840 participants who received the active control and another 787 who received a different intervention potentially aimed at improving well-being (e.g. gratitude training). Most of the participants (77%) were female, and they ranged in age from 18 to 51 years old (average 27 years).

After analyzing the available so-called “effect sizes,” or strength of the intervention’s effectiveness, the authors concluded that there is, in fact, a measurable impact on positive affect and hopes for the future of the possible self intervention. The effect, though, did not persist over time. People’s level of trait optimism did not change after the intervention nor did their typical levels of happiness.

The authors concluded, “inducing an optimistic outlook encourages positive emotions,” a finding in line with the “process” approach to understanding emotions. According to this view, you can regulate your emotions by changing your outlook. Similar to other studies showing the benefits on emotion of such interventions as positive self-affirmations, the best-possible-self intervention isn’t one that will change your life forever. If done right, though, it could help you feel better for perhaps as long as a week. You will not, however, experience a “lasting change in well-being” (p. 20), as some advocates have claimed about this procedure.

In view of these mixed findings, how can you take advantage of that momentary bump in your happiness that a positive self-intervention can stimulate? In the first place, the authors note that you need to take it seriously and become sufficiently engaged in the activity. Just imagining your life going better when you wake up in the morning and then going about your daily routines without giving the matter further thought isn’t going to alleviate whatever bad mood you happen to be experiencing.

The online interventions didn’t show the same benefits as the experiments using in-person treatment, and the authors surmise that this was because it was more difficult for participants to become fully immersed in the exercise when they weren't in a face-to-face setting. Imagery may be helpful to augment a writing exercise, the authors believe, but you have to be able to convince yourself that your best possible self is indeed achievable.

It seems clear that, with these qualifications in mind, there are benefits for your mood in the moment of taking the time to see yourself as able to achieve your goals and overcome your present obstacles. Even if this effect only works for a week, as suggested by the German study, there’s nothing to stop you from engaging in it again after your mood starts to slump downward. That increased positive emotion may also help you become more successful in what you’re trying to achieve even within that brief period of time. Other people will respond more favorably toward you which, in and of itself, can help you feel better about life.

To sum up, it’s important to look carefully at whatever new fads for improving your happiness might seem to offer. In the case of dreaming up your best possible self, the research seems to support its benefits, if not in the long-term, then for your present levels of fulfillment.

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References

Heekerens, J. B., & Eid, M. (2020). Inducing positive affect and positive future expectations using the best-possible-self intervention: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi:10.1080/17439760.2020.1716052