Happiness Lab Director Says Interventions Can Lead to Better Health

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Psychological intervention specifically designed to boost subjective well-being has positive effects on self-reported physical health, according to a new Georgetown study. 

Professor of Psychology Kostadin Kushlev

Kostadin Kushlev, a professor in Georgetown’s  Department of Psychology, directs the Digital Health and Happiness Lab (or Happy Tech Lab) at Georgetown. 

He conducted the study, published June 24 in the SAGE Journal of Psychological Science, in collaboration with researchers from the University of British Columbia and led by Ed Diener at the University of Virginia. 

“Our research is one of the first randomized controlled trials to suggest that increasing the psychological well-being even of generally healthy adults can have benefits to their physical health,” Kushlev says.

“In a six-month randomized controlled trial, we found that an intervention focused explicitly on increasing subjective well-being had effects on physical health,” the professor adds. “Our findings add to the growing body of evidence that happiness not only feels good, but it is good for other outcomes including physical health.”

Health and Happiness

Prior studies have shown that happier people have better cardiovascular health and immune systems than their less-happy counterparts. 

“Being healthier has been proven to be good for happiness,” Kushlev says. “But the new study provides experimental evidence that investing in one’s psychological well-being can also benefit one’s physical health.”  

The research team examined the effects of increasing subjective well-being on physical health in a non-clinical population. A group of 155 adults between the ages of 25 and 75 were randomly assigned either to a waitlist-control or a 12-week positive psychological intervention that addressed three different sources of happiness – the Core Self, the Experiential Self and the Social Self. 

The first three weeks of the program focused on the Core Self, which helped individuals identify  their personal values, strengths and goals. The second area of happiness, the Experiential Self, focused on emotion regulation and mindfulness and gave participants tools to identify maladaptive patterns of thinking. The final four weeks of the program focused on the Social Self and taught individuals techniques to cultivate gratitude, foster positive social interactions, and  engage more with their community. 

Notably, none of the modules focused on promoting physical health or health behaviors, such as sleep, exercise or diet. 

The program, called Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE), comprised weekly modules either led by a trained clinician or completed individually using a customized web platform. 

Each module had an hour-long lesson with information and exercises on target principles of happiness, including a weekly writing assignment such as journaling and an active behavioral component like guided meditation. All of the activities included in the modules were evidence-based tools to increase subjective well-being. 

When the program concluded, the participants were given individual evaluations and recommendations of which modules would be most effective at improving their happiness in the long term. Three months after the conclusion of the trial, researchers followed up with each participant to evaluate their well-being and health. 

A Happy Future

Participants reported increasing levels of subjective well-being compared with control participants over the course of the 12-week program. Test subjects also reported fewer sick days than the control participants throughout the program as well as three months after the end of treatment.  

The online mode of administering the program  was shown to be as effective as the in-person mode led by trained facilitators.  This speaks to the potential of such interventions to be scaled in ways that reach more people. 

Kushlev is hopeful that this program can be used on college campuses in the future to help increase happiness and promote better mental health among students. 

“This program cannot treat mental health issues, but it may serve as a useful tool of prevention,” Kushlev says. “In recent years, there has been a greater focus in the medical sciences towards prevention, not just treatment.”

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