The Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Research

Does valuing happiness help us live a joyful life, or does it backfire?

Happiness seems to have a high currency in America. Over the past few years, the number of popular books written on how to increase it has skyrocketed. To name a few: 10% Happier, The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, 52 Lists for Happiness, Choosing Happier, Flourish. Even the US Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right.”

But what is the consequence of valuing happiness? On the one hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to work harder to attain it. On the other hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to feel unhappy if they don’t reach their standards.

In 2011, a group of researchers decided to put this question to the test. They asked adult females who had recently experienced a stressful life event, such as a divorce or accident, to indicate how much life stress had impacted them and how much they highly valued feeling positively (e.g. “feeling happy is extremely important to me”).

As expected, the participants who highly valued happiness tended to have worse overall wellbeing, including more symptoms of depression, and a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions. Interestingly, the researchers only observed this relationship when participants had lower, but not higher, levels of life stress.

Why did life stress affect this relationship between valuing happiness and wellbeing?

Imagine you just went through a tough breakup. You probably wouldn’t expect to feel happy, let alone feel disappointed by negative feelings. Yet, imagine celebrating a best friend’s birthday party. If you didn’t feel happy in this context, you might feel bummed, especially if you highly valued feeling happy.

In the next study, the researchers had female participants either read an article on the benefits of happiness (“valuing happiness condition”) or making accurate judgments (“control condition”). Then, the participants watched either a sad or happy film clip. Compared to those in the control condition, those in the valuing happiness condition felt worse after watching the sad, but not positive, film clip. Feeling disappointed seemed to play a role in this result: valuing happiness led people to feel disappointed during the sad clip, which, in turn, led them to feel unhappy afterwards.

Does this mean that people should stop valuing happiness?

Not exactly. For one, while the researchers did find paradoxical costs of valuing happiness, they studied people who valued it to a high degree. Other researchers have similarly found that highly valuing happiness is linked to depressive symptoms amongst people who previously struggled with major depression. Yet, valuing happiness to a more moderate degree could help people be happier by motivating them to practice different techniques aimed at increasing happiness. In other words, if people have the right ‘happiness building tools,’ some researchers think that valuing happiness to a certain degree could promote it. More research is needed in order to better understand whether there are conditions under which people could benefit from valuing happiness.

Overall, this research does suggest that a cultural fixation on happiness could have costs, especially if it leads people to feel disappointed with experiencing negative emotions. Research increasingly suggests that accepting negative emotions has benefits, and therapies that encourage acceptance of emotions (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) appear effective.

happiness

The Importance of Acceptance in Dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with OCD are often plagued with a wide variety of painful thoughts. These include horrible images, worries they might harm themselves or others, or beliefs that they are condemned altogether. It’s natural why people would struggle with these, why they would try to push them away and get rid of them.

However, there’s a wide literature of research demonstrating that efforts to get rid of painful thoughts make them more intense and more intrusive. And there’s newer research that finds that acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings may be the most effective way for defusing OCD.

The study

OCD expert Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz’s lab looked at the relationship of two ways of dealing with OCD. The study found an advantage for mindful acceptance over brute endurance of obsessions.

One way of relating to inner experiences, called distress tolerance, refers to enduring painful emotions. This is akin to “gritting your teeth” and powering your way through it.

The other way is called psychological flexibility, the opposite of what is called experiential avoidance. One major process in psychological flexibility involves experiential acceptance, being “open and willing” to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

What the researchers found was that willingness (i.e., choosing) to accept painful thoughts and feelings was associated with lower obsessions. They further suggest that this relationship may be especially true for people who struggle with mental rituals (e.g., Pure “O”).

Limitations

There are limitations to this study. It was correlational and involved college students. The study did not specifically look at the impact of treatment.

Summary

New research suggests that how people relate to OCD-related thoughts and emotions may be important in the maintenance of OCD symptoms. Specially, people who are more willing to experience discomfort without engaging in compulsions may do better than those who can resist compulsions but do so through gritting their teeth and enduring it.

For these reasons, newer acceptance-based treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (act for short), which already has good research support in treating OCD, may have something unique to offer.

In working with OCD, I often start with ACT skills building to help people learn to mindfully accept unwanted thoughts and emotions before moving into ERP (exposure and response prevention). In my experience, the ACT work offers people—especially those with more mental rituals—additional tools for working with OCD symptoms, and helps prepare them to engage in the tough exposure work.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention

People with OCD Prefer Exposure to Alternative Treatments

Mad in America published a summary of a recent study that surveyed people with OCD about treatment preferences. I spent the last hour trying to track down a copy of the actual research article, which has not been officially published yet, but I was unable to locate a pdf and read it myself.

One of the authors is Dr. Helen Blair Simpson, whose brief information video about OCD is a good one.

The study

The researchers surveyed 216 people with OCD about their treatment preferences. Most people preferred Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) as a 1st line treatment. The 2nd most popular treatment was serotonin reuptake inhibitors (i.e., antidepressants). Based on how the abstract was worded, there may be no statistically significant difference between preference for ERP (55%) and preference for antidepressants (45%).

Interestingly, people who preferred antidepressants were more likely to have higher income, private insurance, and a longer history of OCD treatment. According to the Mad in America article:

The researchers theorized that this may be due to this group having “received high-quality psychiatric care that afforded them the time and attention to discuss and resolve concerns about medication.” That is, people without these resources may have had poor experiences with medication management in which they felt pressured or their concerns were not heard. Psychotherapy may have provided an approach tailored to their individual concerns, making it more desirable.

People with OCD didn’t want antipsychotic drugs

People with OCD already taking antidepressant medication preferred ERP as an adjunct treatment over augmenting the antidepressant medication with an antipsychotic. In a prior post, I wrote about research that suggested that antipsychotics were not a useful adjunct treatment for OCD.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based treatment that we offer, was also well received among alternatives to ERP and medications. In a prior blog I used to write for, I wrote about a study on the use of ACT for OCD without deliberate exposure, and OCD researcher Dr. Michael Twohig has a page about ACT and OCD on the IOCDF website.

One theme that stood out to me reading about the study was how well-informed the sample of people with OCD is. Their preferences are remarkably consistent with current research about OCD treatment.

You can read the Mad in America article here, and an abstract of the research study here.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention.

Self-Help for Anxiety in an International Sample

Since I saw him present on some preliminary results at a conference 6 years ago, I’ve been following with interest University of Albany – SUNY professor John Forsyth’s, PhD, research on his self-help book, The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. (The Workbook was recently published in a 2nd edition but the research is on the 1st edition.)

The Workbook is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles, and it is designed to treat a wide range of anxiety-related problems (it’s “transdiagnostic”).

Self-help books have great potential to help people who don’t have access to or don’t want to pursue psychotherapy. Unfortunately, self-help books are rarely based on well-researched treatments, let alone studied themselves as standalone treatment. Dr. Forsyth and his co-author Dr. Georg Eifert have been working very hard to make their book an exception.

The Most Recent Study

In the most recent published study, Dr. Forsyth’s lab gave out copies of the Workbook to a large (503 people!) international sample—mostly American, with people from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. Participants either received a copy immediately, or they were assigned to a 12-week waiting period before receiving a copy. They completed questionnaires before receiving the book and 12-months later, with follow-up assessment at 6 and 9 months. All waitlist participants received a copy after 12-weeks and completed the same post-treatment and follow-up measures.

Contrary to research studies of self-help books that may include regular phone consultation or other forms of therapist/researcher contact, Dr. Forsyth’s lab deliberately chose to not offer guidance for participants using the Workbook in order to examine how useful it was in the way it would normally be used.

What They Found

The sample included people with generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.

Participants in both conditions showed improvements in anxiety, depression, worry, quality of life, mindfulness, and self-compassion after using the book, and some continued to show improvement at the 6 and 9-month follow-ups. As a comparison sample, people on the waitlist did not show significant improvement until after receiving and working through the Workbook.

What was really interesting is that some of the improvements in scores on the measures were comparable to studies that involved individual ACT treatment delivered by therapists.

Summary

Dr. Forsyth’s recent publication offers further evidence that The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety is a helpful, cost effective treatment option for people struggling with a variety of anxiety-related problems. In my work as an anxiety specialist, I recommend this book more than any other because of the strong research support behind it—and because it offers a number of useful worksheets and recordings.

Here’s a link if you want to check out the 2nd edition of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic.

Evaluating Self Help: The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

There’s no shortage of self-help books on the market. There is, however, a paucity of research on whether those self-help books are actually helpful to the people who use them. In an ideal world, every self-help book would be submitted to scientific scrutiny to determine if people actually benefit from using them. Unfortunately, this happens only rarely.

Even a self-help book that is based on well-researched cognitive behavioral principles and written by leaders in the field is not guaranteed to be effective.  For example, one recent study found that college students with greater rumination exhibited more depressive symptoms after using Greenberger & Padesky’s Mind over Mood, a well-respected cognitive behavioral self-help book for depression. These findings suggest that evidence-based psychotherapy interventions don’t always translate into effective self-guided techniques that people can use on their own, and in some instances can actually be harmful.

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

Over 5 years ago, I wrote a few blogs posts about Forsyth & Eifert’s The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety in 2 prior blogs for which I used to contribute. The first, on my blog Scientific Mindfulness, reported on pre-publication research I heard about at a conference. (Unfortunately, it appears the other post has been taken down.) The first author of the workbook, SUNY-Albany professor John Forsyth, PhD, conducted 2 studies on his ACT-based self-help book. He gave copies of the book to people for free, and had them complete online self-report measures at various intervals.

Dr. Forsyth recently posted a summary of this research on his personal blog in anticipation of the upcoming 2nd edition of The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety that will be released April 1, 2016. One paragraph in his blog post caught my attention:

Reductions in anxiety and fear did not happen by going after anxiety and fear directly. It was just the opposite. By first focusing on the skills needed to live a more valued life, readers then experienced a decline in their anxiety, fears, and depression, and ultimate improvements in their lives. This is an important message––one that supports the approach we offer in this workbook.

The workbook emphasizes ACT skills to help people engage in meaningful living, and it appears that those skills—rather than interventions aimed at alleviating anxiety and worry—appear the most effective.  Said another way, the findings suggest that people using the workbook improved more from doing things that were important to them than from any particular technique. This is quite profound, if you think about it, and very different from how many people approach anxiety. Attempting to directly suppress or control anxiety-related thoughts and feelings can often backfire.

Because it’s one of the rare self-help books that has been researched specifically as a self-help book, I find myself recommending The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety more than any other self-help books, and I was excited to hear there’s an updated edition coming out. I encourage readers to check it out.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

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