Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Can you will yourself happier?

"Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
A key question for people hoping to improve their well-being is whether it is counter-productive to focus too hard on the end goal of being happier. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill have proposed that it is - he wrote that happiness comes to those who "have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness." A pertinent study published in 2003 by Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues (pdf) supported this idea: participants who listened to music with the intention of feeling happier actually ended up feeling less happy than others who merely listened to the music with no happiness goal.

But now a new study has come along which purports to show that trying deliberately to be happier is beneficial after all. Yuna Ferguson and Kennon Sheldon criticise the Schooler study on the basis that the music used - Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - is not conducive to happiness, and that's why it interfered with deliberate attempts to feel happier.

Ferguson and Sheldon had 167 participants spend 12 minutes listening either to Rite of Spring or an upbeat section from Rodeo by Copland. Crucially, half the participants were instructed to relax and observe their natural reactions to the music. "It is important that you do not try to consciously improve your mood," they were told. The other participants received the opposite instructions - "really focus on improving your mood".

Afterwards, two measures of mood were taken - one based on six words like "joyful"; the other a continuous measure of positive feelings. The participants who'd listened to the cheery music, and simultaneously tried to improve their mood, reported feeling in a more positive mood than the participants who'd merely listened to the upbeat music, and the participants who'd listened to the down-beat music, whether they strived to feel happier or not. This was despite the fact that the groups did not differ in how much they'd enjoyed the activity, or how "pressured" they'd felt to complete it.

A second study was similar, but this time 68 participants visited a psych lab five times over two weeks to spend 15 minutes each time listening to music they'd chosen from a pre-selected list covering various genres from folk to hip-hop. Again, half the participants were instructed to focus on the music and not their own happiness (they were told that doing so could backfire); the other half were told to think a lot about their happiness and to try to feel happier (they were told that doing so is beneficial).

At the end of the two weeks, the group who'd deliberately tried to feel happier showed an improvement in their happiness levels compared with baseline; in contrast, the participants who'd merely focused on the music did not enjoy this benefit. This was despite both groups believing to the same degree that the intervention would make them happier, and both groups enjoying their music the same amount.

"The results suggest that without trying, individuals may not experience higher positive changes in their well-being," Ferguson and Sheldon concluded. "Thus practitioners and individuals interested in happiness interventions might consider the motivational mindset as an important facet of improving well-being."

Sceptical readers may not be so easily persuaded. Because there was no attempt to measure the participants' thought-processes, it's difficult to know how they interpreted and acted on the two forms of instruction. In the second study in particular, even though they were told there was no need, how do we know the participants didn't go to lengths outside of the lab to boost their happiness? From a statistical point of view, the first study lacks any measure of change in mood.

The second study is also complicated by the music-focus group starting out with, and ending up with, a slightly higher average happiness score than the happiness-focus group (albeit these differences were not statistically significant) - see graph. This raises the possibility of a ceiling effect for the music-focus group - perhaps they were already too happy for the intervention to make a difference.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ferguson, Y., and Sheldon, K. (2013). Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8 (1), 23-33 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2012.747000

--Further reading--
Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will
How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder
How being happy can bring success

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

9 comments:

  1. It can't be denied that if you will yourself to relax, by thinking positive thoughts, you can actually lower your blood pressure, so why not be able to will yourself a bit of happiness? One thing to consider is the reaction to the music or the type of music being played and if it was heard in the past and what experiences the subjects may have had with that particular music. If you consider Pavlov's method of mental reaction in response to sounds (the dog getting food when he hears the bell), that might have an affect on humans who have heard these songs in the past at some point and what they were feeling or what was going on when they heard them. On the other hand, maybe they have not ever heard the songs at all. Being asked to increase your happiness and focusing on it can work according to the positive psychology perspective- happiness, optimism, creativity all fall under this. Increasing our personal well being with these techniques may not make troubles go away, but it's shown to help us cope with stress easier if we are focused on being happy.

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    Replies
    1. Maggie Beckmann2:49 am

      Trying to increase our level of happiness with music could have multiple implications, such as with these two studies. From the perspective of American psychologist Carl Rogers, who had studied humanistic psychology, human behavior can be shaped by self-determination and/or free will. If we choose to be happy, more likely than not, we will feel happier and more positive about ourselves. I believe these two studies were based on too many extraneous variables. The first study, the participants were not given the choice of music they could listen to and only one session had occured. So it only tested you on what your current mood was at the time. The second study, which was slightly better, the participants chose the genre of music they could listen to but the participants were still instructed to control or improve their feelings at the time. Both studies seemed like the participants were manipulated to feel a certain way. That being said, listening to either upbeat or sad music- only I can control how I feel.

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  2. Anonymous2:01 am

    Music is a powerful thing. Its used in many aspects of life to appeal to our senses and trigger certain emotional responses. Movie directors and editors and music with certain rhythms to mock movements by the actors or heavy actions such as a large dance, an intense fight scene, a sexy intimate encounter, or even the sad death of a beloved character. Music has been intertwined with our emotions sense mass audio has been available to humankind, to say that these people were happy because they wanted to be is completely wrong. For that experiment to work the music would have to be fresh to the ears and not of a genre in which they enjoyed to much, or disliked. The music itself is what the subjects were focused on, that is what changed their mood, what they were told to think about or not think about was mostly just coincidental.

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  3. Taylor Kline2:04 am

    I find it interesting that the participants were allowed to leave the psych lab? Like mentioned in the post, how do you know that the participants who were told not to focus on being happier weren't doing activities to boost their happiness outside of the study? I think that if the participants were all exposed to the same environment throughout the study, the results may have appeared different. I would also be interested in knowing what the participants were exposed to in their personal lives before this. Were they all at good places in their lives where they were happy or were they depressed? I think that it would have been more effective if the people particiating in the study were depressed prior to the study, that way you could really determine whether they were increasingly happy. With that, you could determine whether the happiness was from positive psychology or the music.

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  4. This is certainly an interesting concept. The argument can clearly be seen for both sides, which is in my opinion, well illustrated in this article. Personally, I would challenge the basis of using music as the variable in the measurement of a person's happiness. As it was previously stated in the article, the instruction to deliberately NOT focus on ones happiness is difficult to interpret. It may be that the ramifications of that mentality in turn literally cause one to be more unhappy, which would nullify and contradict the entire point of the study. Perhaps a simple study of a person's behavior in day to day life would yield a more reliable result. Simply take one group of subjects and observe them. Provide no instruction. Discreetly measure their happiness, through the participation of plants and without the subjects' knowledge. Obviously, this group of subjects has no idea that they are being observed, certainly not to wish their own happiness on themselves. Then take a second group, and remind them to attempt to will themselves to be happier. This could be be any method they choose, as long as it's purely mental. Observe the happiness in these subjects. Now, this is still flawed, I realize. The ideal circumstance would be an ENTIRELY ignorant group of subjects. But the experiment I just proposed has the advantage of less psychological subconscious variables. In that event, perhaps a clear and undisputed conclusion could be reached.

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  5. Anonymous3:07 am

    I agree that this post supports the old saying of "mind over matter." It is kind of like waking up happy and having a positive attitude, or waking up grumpy and having a negative attitude. I have noticed through personal experience that I tend to have good days when I wake up positive, and I have bad days when I wake up negative. By looking through the positive psychology perspective, this article distills a sense of what might be necessary to achieve personal happiness and well-being.

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  6. LT-
    This experiment is thought provoking as I am just starting to learn about psychology and physiological perspectives. The first thing that came to mind while reading was the Positive Psychology Perspective. Focusing on positive things and consciously making an effort to become a happier person seems as though it would have more of a lasting effect than just listening to music alone. Having a more positive outlook would help a person to feel more satisfied in other aspect of life possibly leading to an overall happier being. Where as listening to music may aid in improving a mood one would not be changing anything to become a happier person therefore having no lasting effects. It seems as though the experiment has too many variables. Music and happiness may correlate but the experiment can not be conclusive.

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  8. Anonymous5:55 pm

    I find this experiment interesting, because while reading about it, I find it is hard to pick a side on which one is actually correct. Many can reseach and do experiments on the matter, but I feel as though it is all in the mindset. If you go into this experiment happy and willing to get the best out of the situation at hand, then I think both situations can work. But on the other hand, it is hard to say that if you focus on being happy you will be because people try to focus on being happy in their everyday lives and sometimes it just doesnt work. So how come in this experiment it does? Also there are many circumstances where the music you hear can affect your mood for the whole day, so who knows what song they heard on the way to this experiment. You know? That is just one thing that pops into my head while reading this. Luckily, I am not a psychologist so I dont need to have the perfect answer but this experiment can really make you think.

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