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Can we get happier together?




So what is happiness? A long debated question, here are some ideas:


A cup of coffee and a really good book?

A happy meal??

These might all bring us a certain amount of happiness for a short while...but i'm not convinced, how about this?

Now THAT sounds like an interesting idea! So if happiness is a conscious choice...what can we do about it if we 'choose' that we want to be happy?
Happiness, the 'causes' and the choices involved are key interests in the area of positive psychology. Positive psychology has suggested several exercises we can practice, either on our own or in social groups, in order to increase our happiness, and many show reliable results. However some key questions remain: Do these exercises really work? Can we integrate them into our everyday lives? And what is the impact of these exercises on society?
We wish to investigate this area with an emphasis on a social and personal comparison, what are the differences between the two types, and can socially involved happiness prove more effective than solo? Want to get happy? Read on….


From a Positive Psychology perspective, it has been suggested that physical activity does play a role in individuals achieving ‘The Good Life’. This idea can come from the perspective of the general population or interestingly even those with mental health issues such as depression. Exercise can help psychological well-being in both an individual level and at a community level. From an individual level, physical activity has the capacity to prevent mental illness, to increase positive emotions and to prepare individuals to overcome the stresses they may come across in everyday life. At a community level, when exercise is seen as a social norm, individuals may conform and lead a healthier lifestyle and also increase the social factor in communities. Either way physical activity can be seen as increasing well-being and in turn aid individuals in their aim to live ‘The Good Life’. In a review article written by Scully and colleagues (1998), it was suggested that there was a relationship between physical activity and psychological well-being and had a positive effect on the following:

* BATTLE OF THE BLUES- it is suggested that exercise (especially aerobic e.g. jogging and cycling) can not only help individuals recover from depression but also make people more resilient towards suffering from it.

* WARD OFF WORRIES- short bursts of exercise can have a positive impact on anxiety.

* SAFEGUARD FROM STRESS- protects individuals from the stresses they may come across on a daily basis.

* MODIFY YOUR MOOD- enhance your mood.

* STEP UP & SELF CONFIDENCE- allows you to learn new skills and discover some new talents which can lead to increased perceived confidence. This can also be linked to improvements in body shape & condition, therefore promote positive self-image.

* Feeling good during and/or after physical exercise is motivational.
* Exercise contributes to an individuals’ quality of life.

Simply, exercise can help people feel good!!!


It has been suggested that most ‘happy’ people are distinguished by having strong personal relationships. This concept of relatedness has been identified by Deci & Ryan (2002) as 1 of 3 fundamental psychological needs where making and maintaining connections with others is vital to the mental well-being of individuals. In the concept of social physical activity, it is important that the individuals involved have the feeling of group cohesion and the exercise group has a social bond


The evidence relating to exercising with others is more evident in the general population. However, it could be suggested that exercising alone may enhance the well-being of individuals such as professional sport stars. Such individuals use specific solo techniques to enhance their performance in turn resulting in positive mental well-being and the motivation to perform at the highest level. These include:

* ATTENTIONAL FOCUS- Being able to block everything and everyone out to allow them to focus on the task at hand

* INTERNAL MONOLOGUE- Maintaining positive thoughts during performance by keeping a running conversation going in their mind

By doing these techniques before a sports performance, these individuals will improve their game, in turn achieve their ultimate goal in the form of an effective performance. Through this the individuals confidence in their ability would improve evidently increasing well-being.


The above suggests that physical activity can be linked to positive well-being in the general population. However, it has also been suggested that the link between exercise and well-being can be magnified to those suffering from depression in particular. This may possibly strengthen the view of physical activity having a positive effect on the well-being of those involved. In a study carried out by Hassemen and colleagues (2000) it was found that people who are physically active are less depressed. In this study those who were physically active had low scores of negative affect and high scores on measures of positive effect (confidence, having a manageable and meaningful life) To an extent this comes back to the idea of exercising in a group situation as in this study the exercisers felt more socially integrated and in turn there was a reduction in their levels of perceived stress, more so than those who were inactive. These individuals tended to exercise moderately on a regular basis which was found to be the most psychologically beneficial. Dr Regina Benjamin even went as far to say “Exercise is Medicine” On the other hand, those who exercised vigorously on a daily basis were found to have higher rates of depression.


Seligman (2002) talks of physical exercise and well-being from a very interesting angle. It was suggested that by gaining physical strength, we feel more confident in our ability: perhaps due to this we have a more positive perception of our physical selves and in turn this has a positive influence on our self-esteem. Self-esteem can be referred to as the degree to which an individual experiences overall self-worth and could possibly be regarded as the most important indicator of psychological well-being. A good principle to sum up this idea: “A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body” (Hans, 1973)


Background.Historically, meditation was employed to develop understanding, awareness and gratitude at a spiritual level. It was also associated with assisting the individual connect with God. There are a great variety of meditative practices primarily due to the different religious traditions across the world that mean mediation ranges from prayers of Christian believers to the Buddhist practice of sitting meditation.

There are two main types of meditation: concentration and mindful meditation. Concentration meditation involves focusing on a neutral anchor such as breath, an imagined or real image or body movement as a focal point such as in Yoga or Tai chi. In the Christian religion, meditation takes the form of chanting and saying the rosary. The purpose of concentration meditation is to fully experience the present moment. After which worries and anxieties fade and the individual is at peace. If any thoughts arise, the individual must guide his mind back to the focus of concentration. Mindful meditation however involves becoming aware of the whole field of attention including thoughts, feelings and sensations. This type of mediation is promoted by the individuals capability to silence the mind.

This woman is sitting in the lotus position, practicing yoga.

Meditation can involve a quiet, motionless seated type or ritualised movements. Sitting meditation is mostly carried out in the upright or cross legged positions. Conversely, movement meditation can involve free form or highly structured movements and is useful for those who prefer not be still for extended periods of time.

Meditation can be seen to help benefit many people in a various number of manners. Often people who are ill or extremely stressed feel its benefits the most. Meditation helps to promote well being and it has been found people who meditate regularly experience less anxiety and depression and report more enjoyment and appreciation in life. Michael J. Baime in Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests meditation allows one to fully experience intense emotions whilst remaining composed and balanced. The consequence of which is a greater insight into one's thoughts, feelings, and actions. This in turn is believed to promote confidence and awareness of the self.

Meditation also facilitates a greater sense of calmness, empathy, and acceptance of the self and others. Meditation is often suggested as an additional complement to medical treatments of disease, primarily in relation to reducing stress related conditions. For example evidence has shown meditation to be an appropriate therapy for panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, substance dependence, chronic pain and psoriasis. Meditation is also used as therapy for hypertension, prevention of cardiac arrest, arthritis, insomnia, migraine and stroke. Moreover, meditation can help improve or reduce symptoms associated with neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. In 1995, a report to the National Institutes of Health on alternative medicine reviewed 30 years of research of individuals and health care providers. They came to the conclusion that meditation in enhancing relaxation are cost effective ways of improving health and quality of life.

Group versus individual meditation

In relation to mediation being a source of treatment for people who are suffering from various illnesses. Group meditation is often seen to revolve around physical, mental or spiritual healing. Often this involves one individual leading the group meditation and encouraging other members of the group to envision the individual they wish to heal and focus their meditation on that person. The groups are then told to visualize sending a warm light filled with healing and positive energy to the subject. Thus, it is claimed that group meditation can be a very powerful instrument involved in the process of nurturing and healing a troubled mind and soul, more so than an individual meditation could. In a wider sense of the meaning however, a healing meditation doesn't just have to revolve around a certain person. For individuals concerned about the planet and its environment for example, a healing meditation can be practiced with this as a focus. Further group meditations can involve a peace meditation where the group meditates on ridding the planet of fighting and bringing world peace. Therefore group meditations can involve an increasingly powerful meditative state and bring a greater energy to the process.

Meditation prayer is also an important aspect involved in group meditation. Many people prayers can be very powerful and a group meditation is an excellent way to send prayers to someone in need.

Moreover meditating in a group has many practical benefits, for example it can help individuals to stay committed to the practice through organized meditation classes. Its been suggested that group meditation is an good starting point for beginners as support can be provided and any questions or queries they may have can be discussed. Even though the experience itself is solitary, being part of a community meditation can bring comfort and security. It is possible to share experiences and thoughts about ones spiritual well being and make the process of meditation a less isolated experience. Its argued that a combination of individual and group meditation can result in an exceedingly more intricate and deeper understanding of the inner “self.”

Scientific evidence also exists to support the idea that group meditation can be a very powerful force. Experts studying quantum physics found that when large groups of monks congregated to meditate, it had dramatic effects, including a drop in crime rates. Although obviously this is open to debate as being a mere coincidence.

In relation to individual meditation, it would appear evident the benefits of group meditating greatly outweigh the advantages of individual meditation


Research Proving Altruism Has Positive Impact on Health

A new direction in the emotional and behavioral aspects of anti-aging research (Epel et al., 2004) indicates that chronic stress impacts health by modulating the rate of cellular aging. Evidence is mounting that psychological stress is associated with higher oxidative stress, lower telomerase activity, and shorter telomere length, all of which are known determinants of cell senescence and longevity.

In this study, women with the highest levels of perceived stress had telomeres that were, on average, shortened by 1 decade when compared with low-stress women. Thus, stress accelerates aging and increases susceptibility to the many illnesses for which age is the major risk factor (Epel et al., 2004).

Cultivating loving emotions, engaging in helping and self-forgetful activities, and a serene spirituality may thus contribute to good health and longevity by preventing the acceleration of aging at the cellular level. In commenting on this study, Sapolsky (2004) indicates that, although more research is needed, the Epel et al. (2004) study points to a pathway by which stress influences a fundamental aspect of the aging process.

Well-being consists of feeling hopeful, happy, and good about oneself, as well as energetic and connected to others. An early study compared retirees older than the age 65 who volunteered with those who did not (Hunter & Lin, 1980–1981). Volunteers scored significantly higher in life satisfaction and will to live and had fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and somatization. Because there were no differences in demographic and other background variables between the groups, the researchers concluded that volunteer activity helped explain these mental health benefits. The non-volunteers did spend more days in the hospital and were taking more medications, which may have prevented them from volunteering.

A study by Musick, Herzog, and House (1999) examined the hypothesis that older volunteers benefit in terms of health as well as wellbeing. Based on data from a nationally representative sample, the study used Cox proportional hazards regression to estimate the effects of volunteering on the rate of mortality among persons 65 and older. The data are a multistage stratified area sample representative of the non-institutionalized U.S. population aged 25 and older; the response rate was 67% of sampled individuals and 68% for sampled households. The data were collected over three waves: 1986 (n = 3,617), 1989 (n = 2,867), 1994 (n = 2,348).

Face-to-face interviews were conducted in the respondents’ homes. From mid-1986 through March 1994, deaths were ascertained through tracking and interview processes and via the National Death Index. Respondents were asked whether they had volunteered in the past year through a religious, educational, political, senior citizen, or other organization. Respondents who had volunteered were asked how much time they had devoted to volunteerism.

Controlled analysis indicated that the protective effects of volunteering “were strongest among those volunteering for one organization or for less than forty hours” (Musick et al., 1999, p. S175) and among those who lacked other social supports. Moderate amounts of volunteerism were associated with lowered risk of death. Indeed, simply adding the volunteering role was protective (Musick et al., 1999). One need not volunteer to a great extent to have benefits, and too much volunteering to the point of strain “incurs just enough detriments to offset the potential beneficial effects of the activity” (Musick et al., 1999, S178). The researchers added that 69% who reported volunteering did so through a religious organization, but they found no relation between reduced risk of mortality and religious service attendance. Volunteering, rather than its religious context, explained the effect.

Oman of the University of California at Berkeley is one of the leading researchers in this field. Oman et al. (1999) focused on 2,025 community-dwelling residents of Marin County, California, who were first examined in 1990–1991. All respondents were 55 or older at this baseline examination; 95% were non-Hispanic White, 58% were women, and a majority had annual incomes above $15,000.

Residents were classified as practicing “high volunteerism” if they were involved in two or more helping organizations and as practicing “moderate volunteerism” if they were involved in one. The number of hours invested in helping behavior was also measured, although this was not as predictive as the number of organizations. Physical health status was assessed on the basis of reported medical diagnoses, as well as such factors as “tiring easily” and self-perceived overall health.

Thirty-one percent (n = 630) of these elderly participants participated in some kind of volunteer activity, and about half volunteered for more than one organization. Those who volunteered for two or more organizations experienced a 63% lower likelihood of dying during the study period than did non-volunteers. Even after controlling for age, gender, number of chronic conditions, physical mobility, exercise, self-rated general health, health habits (smoking), social support (marital status, religious attendance), and psychological status (depressive symptoms), this effect was only reduced to a still highly significant 44%.

Observational physical performance measures and self-reported functioning measures were included. Socio-demographic data were collected, as well as information on social functioning and support. Frequency of attendance at religious services was included in the many social functioning questions. Psychological measures were implemented as well. Mortality was determined by screening local newspapers, attempted contact for re-interview at the time of a second interview, and submission of names to the National Death Index. Mortality was examined from 1990 through November 13, 1995, the closing date of the second examination. During this follow-up period of 3.2 to 5.6. years, 203 (23.8%) men and 247 (21.1%) women died. Remarkably, “the mortality rate of 30.1 among non- volunteers declined by 26 percent to 24.2 (p = .04) among moderate volunteers, and by an additional 50 percent to 12.8 (p = .008) among high volunteers (two or more organizations)” (Oman et al., 1999, p. 307).


Multivariate adjusted associations indicated that moderate volunteerism was not statistically significant after controlling for health status. High volunteerism remained significantly associated with lower mortality rates. Specifically, “the 44 percent reduction in mortality associated with high volunteerism in this study was larger than the reductions associated with physical mobility (39 percent), exercising four times weekly (30 percent), and weekly attendance at religious services (29 percent), and was only slightly smaller than the reduction associated with not smoking (49 percent)” (Oman et al., 1999, p. 310; Oman & Reed, 1998).

On a cross-cultural level, Krause, Ingersoll-Dayton, Liang, and Sugisawa (1999) at the University of Michigan studied a sample of 2,153 older adults in Japan, ex- amining the relations among religion, providing help to others, and health. They found that those who pro- vided more assistance to others were significantly more likely to indicate that their physical health was better. The authors concluded that the relation between religion and better health could be at least partly explained by the increased likelihood of religious persons helping others.

The benefits of altruism are not limited to older adults (Omato & Snyder, 1995); the differences in health outcomes between helpers and non-helpers is more difficult to detect in younger age groups, however, where health is not affected by susceptibilities associated with aging (House et al., 1982).

Ironson, Solomon, and Balbin (2002) at the University of Miami compared the characteristics of long-term survivors with AIDS (n = 79) with a HIV-positive comparison group equivalent (based on CD4 count) that had been diagnosed for a relatively shorter time (n = 200). These investigators found that survivors were significantly more likely to be spiritual or religious. The effect of spirituality and religiousness on survival, however, was mediated by “helping others with HIV.” Thus, helping others (altruism) accounted for a significant part of the relation between spirituality and religiousness and long-term survival in this study.
Brown et al. (2003) reported on a 5-year study involving 423 older couples. Each couple was asked what type of practical support they provided for friends or relatives, if they could count on help from others when needed, and what type of emotional support they gave each other. A total of 134 people died over the 5 years. After adjusting for a variety of factors—including age, gender, and physical and emotional health— the researchers found an association between reduced risk of dying and giving help but no association between receiving help and reduced death risk. Brown, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, concluded that those who provided no instrumental or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die in the 5 years as people who helped spouses, friends, relatives, and neighbors.

Despite concerns that the longevity effects might be due to a healthier individual’s greater ability to provide help, the results remained the same after the researchers controlled for functional health, health satisfaction, health behaviors, age, income, education level, and other possible confounders. The researchers concluded that “If giving, rather than receiving, promotes longevity, then interventions that are currently designed to help people feel supported may need to be redesigned so that the emphasis is on what people do to help others” (Brown, Nesse, Vonokur, & Smith, 2003, p. 326).

New research suggests there may be a biochemical explanation for the positive emotions associated with doing good. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, participants’ brains were monitored by MRI scans while they made decisions about donating part of their research payment to charitable organizations.

When participants chose to donate money, the brain’s mesolimbic system was activated, the same part of the brain that’s activated in response to monetary rewards, sex, and other positive stimuli. Choosing to donate also activated the brain’s subgenual area, the part of the brain that produces feel-good chemicals, like oxytocin, that promote social bonding.

Why Doing Good Works

These results may seem surprising, especially since our culture tends to associate happiness with getting something. Why should we humans be programmed to respond so positively to giving? “As Darwin noted, group selection played a strong rule in human evolution. If something like helping benefits the group, it will be associated with pleasure and happiness,” explains Stephen Post, Ph.D., a research professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University who co-authored the book Why Good Things Happen to Good People with Jill Neimark.

While evolution may have primed us to feel good from giving, it may not be the only reason helping others makes us feel better. Since depression, anxiety, and stress involve a high degree of focus on the self, focusing on the needs of others literally helps shift our thinking. “When you’re experiencing compassion, benevolence, and kindness, they push aside the negative emotions,” says Post. “One of the best ways to overcome stress is to do something to help someone else.” Even better, feeling good and doing good can combine to create a positive feedback loop, where doing good helps us to feel good and feeling good also makes us more likely to do good.

The Case Against Altruism

First, let's consider the case against altruism. Acting with kindness offers the following "selfish" benefits:
1) Doing something kind reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction. It can be physically and psychologically uncomfortable to see someone in need of support (e.g., a homeless person shivering during winter, a friend who lost a parent, a child being verbally abused by a parent). Helping relieves this tension.

2) A kind act allows us to avoid social sanction or personal guilt for failing to help. You may remember the very last Seinfeld show. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were prosecuted and jailed in Massachusetts for failing to help someone being robbed, thus violating a Good Samaritan law. Such laws actually do exist in a few states (although fines are more likely than jail time). A much more common sanction for failing to help when needed is the disapproval of our friends, coworkers, family members, and romantic partners. Selfish, Insensitive, Heartless, Mean--These are labels we wish to avoid.

3) Kindness confers social and personal rewards. We earn the approval of others and feel good about ourselves for doing the "right" thing. A theory or "reciprocal altruism" suggests that kind acts are most often directed toward individuals who are likely to repay us in the future (Trivers, 1971).
If you offer to collect the mail of your neighbors when they are on vacation, then they will likely do the same for you. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller noted that a truly anonymous act of kindness is the exception.
For example, most "anonymous" donations are no secret to the giver's immediate family. Miller does not deny that most people have pure intentions when they donate money or time; but he does question why feelings of empathy and a proclivity to help evolved in the first place. He suggests that they evolved because acting with kindness and generosity confers social rewards.


As we have seen, altruistic acts, meditation and physical exercise can have positive effects from both a social or solo setting. Now let’s look at some more positive interventions and review the evidence to determine whether social or solo exercises are more effective in increasing individual happiness, or if indeed there is any difference at all.

Social positive interventions are interpersonal activities that require the interaction and response from another person for emotional gain. These exercises include:

Gratitude visit – writing a letter of thanks to someone and then delivering it to them

Kindness – random acts of kindness either carried out or received.

Sharing positivity – expressing positive events to others, and.

Active-constructive responding – actively responding positively to other peoples good news

Studies have shown that gratitude plays a large role in an individual’s subjective happiness (Peterson & Seligman 2004). Compared to unhappy people, happy people seem to have closer and more fulfilling relationships with others, and report to feel more gratitude (Park et al, 2004). Gratitude can be a two-way interactive exercise, and can be found when acts of kindness are directed towards us and also when we act kindly to others. How we interact in relationships has an effect on our personal happiness and quality of our relationships.

Gable and colleagues (2004) note that it is not how we react to problems in a relationship, but how we respond to good news in each other’s lives that can distinguish how good a relationship is. Gable et al’s carried out 4 studies to examine the intrapersonal and interpersonal effects of sharing positive events with others (ie capitalization):

2 studies used students as participants and found that:

• Expressing personal positive events to others increased daily positive effect and well being.

• Also, that this effect was greater than the impact of the positive event itself.

• This effect was enhanced further when the response to capitalization attempts by the other person was perceived to be active and constructive (as opposed to passive or destructive).

The next study focused on dating couples and the final one used married couples. These studies both found that:

• When in a close relationship in which their partner responds enthusiastically to capitalization, the individual reported higher relationship well-being including daily marital satisfaction and intimacy.

This study however, has not addressed the relationship between capitalization and long-term well-being and health.

Otake et al (2006) also explored how our interaction with others can impact on our personal well-being. They carried out a kindness study, asking participants to fill out questionnaires on happiness measures and components of strength of kindness (ie motivation, recognition and behaviour). They concluded that:

• Happy people scored higher on their motivation to perform, and, their recognition and performing of kind behaviours

• Happy people have more and better happy memories in daily life

• Subjective happiness is increased by recognising and listing one’s own acts of kindness in one week

• Happy people become more grateful and kind by counting kindness in this way.

Similar findings were reported in Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2004), where participants were asked to carry out 5 random acts of kindness a week, over a 6 week period (ie dropping a coin in a strangers parking meter, giving blood, visiting a sick relative etc) . They concluded that this activity increased short-term well being and happiness over the course of the trial (no follow-up was carried out).

The studies discussed so far provide evidence that supports the beneficial effects of practicing social interventions on an individual’s subjective happiness. However, even though an act of kindness is a socially interactive deed, in the Otake study, the reflection on the act, which was solo, increased the happiness felt by the participant. So again both the social and the solo aspect of this intervention are important to the effects. Let’s explore some experiments that have used solo exercises and see if these effects are replicated.

Solo positive exercises are interventions that the individual can do independently, in their own time to increase subjective happiness. They include:

Letter writing – simply writing a letter of gratitude to someone but not delivering it.

3 good things – every evening writing about 3 good things that have happened during that day

Positive writing – writing about intensely positive experiences.

Best possible self – Visualising your best possible future self.

Burton & King (2004) tested the effects of writing about intensely positive experiences on undergraduate students. They were asked to write about an intensely positive experience for 20 minutes a day for 3 consecutive days. The trial lasted 3 months, with mood measures obtained before and immediately after the 3 days, and 3 months later measures for health centre visits for illness were taken. This study concluded that:

• Writing about intensely positive experiences is associated with enhanced positive moods

• And significantly fewer health centre visits

Similar findings were concluded from Smyth (1998) analysis of 13 emotional writing studies. He found that written emotional expression produces significant health benefits in healthy participants.

But what about long term effects?

Seligman et al (2005) carried out an internet study on 577 participants divided into 6 groups. Over one week, 5 of the groups were instructed to complete happiness exercises and a 6th control group who were set a placebo task (writing about early memories daily). The social positive exercises included:

• Gratitude letter writing and delivery

• Identifying signature strengths and using one in a new way every day

• Identifying signature strengths and using them more often during the week

The solo activities included:

• Write 3 good things in life, daily, with causal explanations

• Write about a time in your life you were at your best and review daily

Happiness and depression measures were administered before exercises, after and periodically over a 6 month period. The results revealed that all of the exercises, including the control, had some positive impact on immediate happiness and depression scores, however, the prolonged outcome varied between exercises. Indentifying and using strengths in a new way and writing 3 good things, both increased depressive symptoms and happiness score for the full 6 months of the trial. Gratitude letter writing and delivery found the same effect for 1 month. The others only experienced a positive result during the week the exercises were carried out. Seligman et al noted that participants, who continued to perform these exercises beyond the initial week trial, found longer lasting positive effects.

The long term effects of positive interventions were also investigated by Lyubomirsky et al (2008) . They picked one solo (best possible self) and one social exercise (gratitude visit) for analysis, similar to Seligmans study. The exercises were carried out over an 8 week period, and then follow up analysis was carried out 6 months later. Long-term positive effects were found in both interventions for health and well-being measures, but this effect was only found to be significant in motivated individuals who had self-selected their intervention.

Sin et al (2009) carried out a meta analysis of 51 mixed social and solo positive interventions, with 4266 individuals, and also found overall an increase in well-being and a decrease in depressive symptoms. In agreement with Seligman, they concluded from all the evidence that clinicians should encourage individuals to continue these practices, and diarise them, to form positive happiness boosting habits. Also they recommend multiple and different exercises, as this can be more effective.

So what does this tell us? Well, from these studies it seems that we are still pretty much still split down the middle between effects of social and solo interventions. Both types of interventions purport to increase health, well-being and happiness, so;

How can we pick the correct intervention for us?

Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) note the importance of the correct intervention for an individual. Before a person begins a positive intervention program, their strengths, interests, values and inclinations should be considered, as this will indicate whether a social or solo activity will work best. Snyder & Cantor (1998) call this the “matching” hypothesis. The positive effects of goal-attainment on subjective well being have been shown to be moderated by goal-person fit, in numerous studies (Brunstein et al, 1998, Sheldon & Kasser, 1998).

Cultural backgrounds also have to be considered when prescribing positive interventions, according to Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2008). They note that members of individualistic cultures gain more benefits from positive interventions that those from Collectivist cultures. Therefore it is encouraged to match pro-social exercises to those from collectivist cultures and solo focused activities to individualistic cultures, for optimum results.

And even if the positive intervention being delivered is solo or social, individuals have been found to have a greater chance of success and sustained happiness change if they have the support of a social group (Putnam , 2000). Social support is an important correlate of psychological well-being, and inter-personal support can help in initiating and maintaining positive happiness-increasing activity (Henderson & Brown, 1998).

Also, Sin et al (2009) assert the importance of the format of treatment. They maintain that individual therapy is more effective than group-administered, which again is more effective than self-administered. So the way in which the practitioner delivers the interventions is important to the overall effect.

We can conclude from this that both social and solo exercises are effective, but for optimum results it is best to consider culture, strengths, values, interests and inclinations to pick a suitable intervention . Then the administration and length of the therapy, motivation of client and support network are all important considerations for best gains in the chosen treatment.


So why should we bother trying to integrate these exercises and techniques into our lives? The key purpose of these exercises, both solo and social, is to encourage expressing gratitude for things or people in your life. Expressing gratitude is a key part of increasing happiness in life. Dr Chris Johnstone is a doctor specialising in addiction who has been an important figure in trying to integrate positive psychology into the NHS, and Miriam Akhtar produced one of the first programmes for BBC radio on the science of happiness. Together they have formulated 12 strategies to increase happiness in life, and expressing gratitude is number 1 on their list.
See for the full list.

There are many studies that show the benefits of expressing gratitude often and in various ways. Emmons and MCCullough (2003) found that subjects who kept weekly gratitude journals reported fewer physical problems, felt better about their lives, were more optimistic and exercised more regularly than other subjects who recorded neutral or hassle events. Wood et al (2008,07,09) found that people who express gratitude regularly are less stressed, more satisfied with life, have better coping strategies, and even sleep better.
Seligman et al (2005) conducted an internet study comparing 5 different gratitude intervention types (and one control):
1) Gratitude visit: deliver a letter of thanks to someone who has been kind to you but not really thanked.
2) Three good things in life: write down 3 good things that have happened each day and their probable causes.
3) You at your best: write about a time you were at your best and identify personal strengths displayed, then reflect upon this each day.
4) Using signature strengths in a new way: identify your top 5 strengths via inventory of character strengths on and then use one of you top 5 strengths in a different and new way each day.
5) Identifying signature strengths: identify your top 5 strengths via inventory of character strengths on and use your top 5 strengths more often.
6) Early memories (placebo control): write about your early memories every night.

Participants were asked to continue the intervention type they were assigned to for one week and then completed follow up assessments including depression and happiness scales. The results of the study showed that all gratitude interventions increased happiness to different degrees and for different amounts of time, but the key for long-term success was a participant continuing their interventions after the week in which they had been instructed to participate.

These studies show the benefits of expressing gratitude, which includes increasing happiness, but also extend beyond this to health benefits by increasing motivation to exercise and contributing to better sleep, and also seem to induce a general satisfaction and reduction of stress in life. These results may surprise some people, but they also show that maybe we should put more consideration into integrating gratitude exercises, and indeed other ideas from positive psychology that increase happiness, into our everyday lives. Although, it is also key to note that Seligman et al (2005) found that continual practise of exercises was necessary to reap long-term benefits. This may be difficult for some people, and perhaps become somewhat of a hassle, so a more convincing argument must be put forward. So let’s consider the idea further by asking: What are the benefits of increasing happiness?


Of course there are the obvious benefits of simply being happy, a majority of people would probably choose to be happy over unhappy, it helps us get on with tasks we perhaps would rather not do, helps us be kind to others and to generally enjoy our lives. However there are also much bigger and longer lasting effects of happiness that many of us may not have considered. One of these is the ‘broaden-and-build’ theory by Barbara Fredrickson. Frederickson’s theory proposes that positive emotions allow us to experience everyday life in a more effective and ‘efficient’ way, in such that we are open to learn and experience more, take more chances, and say ‘yes’ to new opportunities. This is referred to as broadening your thought-action repertoire. By living life this way we vastly improve our chances of gaining personal recourses, both emotional, social and material.

Fredrickson further supports the benefits of positive emotion, and it’s ability to broaden-and-build, in her paper Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being (2000) with examples of 3 emotions that general positive emotion facilitates- joy, interest and contentment.

☺ Joy- joy creates an urge to engage and play. Play may seem like an activity we choose to take part in, enjoy and does not have a huge impact on our lives except to bring further joy, but in fact play has several benefits. Play helps to build friendships and social awareness as well cognitive and physical skills Boulton & Smith (1992). Panksepp (1998) also proposed that childhood play aids frontal lobe brain development, key for executive functioning.

☺ Interest- Interest generates "a feeling of wanting to investigate, become involved, or extend or expand the self by incorporating new information and having new experiences with the person or object that has stimulated the interest" Izard, 1977, p. 216. Interest makes us curious which in turn encourages exploration and interest in new information or situations. By being happy and therefore interested we tend to explore more and therefore gain all types of personal resources.

☺ Contentment- “Contentment… is a mindful emotion. It involves full awareness of, and openness to momentary experiences; it carries the urge to savor and integrate those experiences, which in turn creates a new sense of self and a new world view.” Fredrickson (2000). Contentment allows us to concentrate, in a sense, on being mindful of ourselves and the world around us, which, in turn, allows us to recognize and take advantages of new experiences and opportunities to build personal resources.

The opposite of positive emotions (negative emotions) can have many negative effects from exacerbating phobias (Ohman, 1993) and stress disorders (O’Leary, 1990) to heart disease (Barefoot et al, 1983) and even some cancers (Eysenck, 1994). Negative emotions can also lead to social problems, frustration, depression and general unhappiness with life, and in extreme cases, suicide (Chen & Dilsaver, 1996).
Aside from avoiding such effects Fredrickson (2000) argues that another benefit of positive emotions is that they can actually counter-act these negative emotions when they arise, or alleviate long lasting effects of previous negative emotions. If this is true then practicing gratitude exercises to increase positive emotions regularly should help reduce negative emotions and their consequences to the absolute minimum possible in life, hence leading to a happier life.

These benefits of positive emotion facilitated by gratitude exercise are all good consequences that we should consider adding to our lives, however they mainly concentrate on individual benefits and interactions, and as we all live in society and, mostly, are required to interact with others, it is important to consider what some of the social benefits of gratitude exercises and positive emotions may be.


Back to Dr Chris Johnstone and Miriam Akhtar’s 12 strategies to increase happiness in life and number 9 on the list is improving relationships. Many of us enjoy being socially connected and feel it brings us many positives, but is this validated by evidence? An online article by Sarah Jio for Woman’s Day argues that there are many social occasions that can benefit our health:

1. Giving a massage—and getting one—can have mega health benefits.
2. Going to a book club may increase your longevity.
3. Facebook may be good for your happiness.
4. Happiness is contagious—share some with a neighbor.
5. Hugs for health.
6. Texting: the ultimate mood booster.
7. The magic of family dinner.
8. Why a cocktail with friends could be medicinal.
9. Why a team sport may improve fitness better than exercising solo.
10. Church.

Go to to read full article.

Although this article is merely a lifestyle interest read rather than published in a scientific journal, many of these claims are substantially backed up by experimental evidence, some of which are mentioned in the article. As discussed earlier in this page it has been shown that social gratitude exercises can produce equally as positive or even greater effects than solo exercises, and the main point is that multiple people benefit, not just the individual (as with solo exercises).

The link between gratitude and positive social effects is shown by Froh et al (2010) in their paper ‘Being Grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents’. In this paper Froh et al conducted measures of gratitude, pro-social behaviour, life satisfaction and social integration on 700 middle school students, and then followed up with the same measures 3 months and 6 months later. The results of the study found that baseline measures of gratitude predicted social interaction 3 months later, and that gratitude and social integration enhanced each other, illustrated below.

from Froh et al (2010)

This study shows how gratitude can be applied to reap social benefits as well as individual: social integration allows both the individual to feel belonging to a social group as well as creating a strong, supportive and trusting society.

Lambert et al (2010) investigated the impact of expressing gratitude to a partner (romantic or friend) and the attitude towards the relationship and it’s strength. The study showed that expressing gratitude to a partner increased perception of the relationship strength both in the short and long term, and control conditions showed lower increases of strength perception compared to the gratitude condition, further supporting the results. Lambert et al’s study shows how easily social connections can be strengthened by use of social gratitude exercises, benefiting all, in this case both, members of the relationship.

Another area in which social gratitude exercises would be and are very important is in workplaces. Businesses spend lots of money on teambuilding workshops or weekends in order to build positive relationships between colleges and between bosses and employees. Positive emotions, respect, gratitude and feeling appreciated are all very important components to building an efficient workforce.

Bono et al (2004) state:
“Most directly, as a cognitive strategy, gratitude can improve individual well-being and lower toxic emotions in the workplace, such as resentment and envy. Moods are important determiners of efficiency, productivity, success, and employee loyalty. A number of recent studies have demonstrated that employee happiness and wellbeing are positively associated with performance, commitment, and morale, and negatively associated with absenteeism, burnout, and turnover.”

Gratitude and its effect on the workplace is an area that would benefit greatly from further research, but it is undoubtedly an area that holds large positive outcomes yet to be discovered.

Overall, participation in gratitude exercises is an important consideration. Many studies have shown that large rewards are to be had, most importantly increasing happiness, which in turn leads to many other positive effects. Solo gratitude exercises can be rewarding for individuals, but practising social gratitude exercises can benefit not only the gratitude expresser, but also the gratitude recipient and the social community which the expresser is part of. Social gratitude exercises can benefit workplaces, relationships and society as a whole as well as the individual.


If you could only read one paper in this area, read this:

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2005). ‘Positive Psychology Progress. Empirical Validation of Interventions.’ American Psychologist. 60, 5. P410-421.


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Froh, J. J., Bono, G., Emmons, R., (2010). ‘Being grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents.’ Motivation Emotion, 34, p144-157.

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