Myriam Mongrain wanted to test the idea that these exercises will be more effective if they're tailored to people's particular personality type. They focused on two traits associated with vulnerability to depression: being excessively self-critical and being excessively needy.
Sergeant and Mongrain predicted that a gratitude exercise would be especially effective for self-critics by replacing a negative self-focus with an appreciation for the external world. And they thought a positive-music listening exercise would be particularly suited to needy people, offering them a practical tool that they could use independently. A control condition involved recalling early childhood memories.
The take-home finding is that whilst there was some evidence that self-critical people benefited more from the gratitude exercise than the music or control exercises (in terms of a greater happiness boost), the high neediness participants actually experienced reductions in their self-esteem following the gratitude and music exercises compared with the control exercise, and no benefits. "The present findings provide the first hint of deleterious effects that can be incurred by the use of positive psychology exercises," the researchers said.
The findings came from an Internet study of 772 volunteers. After completing baseline measures of self-esteem, happiness, depression, physical health, and the key traits of self-criticism and neediness, the participants were randomly allocated to a one-week intervention: either gratitude, music or the control task. The daily gratitude exercise involved recalling five things to be grateful for that day; the music task involved listening to three or four uplifting songs of their choosing each day; the memory task involved writing about a different childhood memory each day. Follow-up measures of depression and the rest were completed after the week's intervention and again at one, three and six-months. Two hundred and eighty-three participants stayed the course until the study end.
Why did high scorers in neediness actually show reductions in self-esteem after the positive exercises? Sergeant and Mongrain can't be sure, but they speculated that they'd chosen the wrong kind of exercise for these people. "... [B]oth tasks were focused on independent activity and required little involvement with other people," they said. "Needy people rely on having secure intimate bonds with others in order to experience well-being." It's also possible that the exercises were merely ineffectual for the needy participants, rather than harmful, but that they chose to take out their frustration about this on the outcome measures. Other study weaknesses include the impersonal nature of an Internet study and the brevity of the intervention.
These results add to an existing literature on the potential hazards of self-help. A 2010 study found that CBT-based self-help books were harmful for high ruminators (people who spend a lot of time thinking about their own thoughts and emotions); and a 2009 study found that uttering positive self-help mantras (e.g. "I'm a lovable person") backfired for people with low self-esteem.
Sergeant, S., and Mongrain, M. (2011). Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 260-272 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.577089
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.