Recent research: five papers on feeling good & improved functioning, on meaning & wellbeing, and on happy memories,
Last updated on 3rd March 2009
I seem to be making a habit this month of focusing on a specific journal when posting the weekly report on interesting recent research. Last week it was the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . This week it's the Journal of Positive Psychology . To quote the Journal's website: "Positive psychology is about scientifically informed perspectives on what makes life worth living. It focuses on aspects of the human condition that lead to happiness, fulfillment, and flourishing." First published in 2006, the journal initially came out quarterly. Now, in 2009, it's increasing its publication frequency to six issues a year - a pleasing sign of the increasing interest in this field.
I was struck by five papers in the January issue of the journal. Two are on the well documented way that feeling good promotes better functioning. So Nelson conducted experiments with college students showing that when they felt good, they were more likely to be empathic, broaden their perspectives and feel sympathy and compassion towards people from other cultures. In separate research, Howell et al found that in a group of undergraduate students, about a fifth were "flourishing" (showing high emotional, psychological, and social well-being), about a fifth were "languishing", and three fifths were classified as "moderately mentally healthy". For more on this notion of "flourishing" and "languishing" see Keyes and Haidt (eds) "Flourishing: positive psychology and the life well-lived." The students who were flourishing were " ... less likely to adopt an entity view of ability or to procrastinate and were more likely to endorse mastery-approach goals, to report high self-control, and to report high grades."
There are also two papers on meaning in life. In the first, Byron & Miller-Perrin found that the link between religious faith and increased wellbeing was significantly mediated by having a sense of life purpose. It seems likely that religious faith is just one of several ways to link into the wellbeing benefits of having a personal sense of life purpose. Steger et al looked at meaning in life across the life span. People tended to have a stronger sense of meaning as they aged, but at all life stages meaning was associated with higher wellbeing.
In the fifth paper that I was struck by, Vitters et al. " ... hypothesized that systematically thinking about a happy moment would generate interest, whereas mental replaying would generate pleasantness. In an experimental setting, people who systematically analyzed a happy moment increased feelings of interest, while the level of pleasantness remained unchanged. In the alternative condition, people who mentally replayed a happy moment reported increased interest and pleasantness. At post-intervention, the replay group scored higher on pleasantness, but not on interest, relative to the analyze group." This is an area that has interested me for a while. Emotional processing of unpleasant memories tends to ease the distress associated with them. This is the basis of much work on posttraumatic stress disorder. There has been previous research suggesting an unwelcome similar process may occur when analysing pleasant memories - that we begin to lose the sense of pleasantness. This recent paper provides findings in the same ballpark territory - to really enjoy happy memories it's likely to be better to "replay" them in one's mind or conversation (getting in touch again with the images, sense experiences, and feelings), rather than analyse them too much.
Nelson, D. W. (2009). "Feeling good and open-minded: The impact of positive affect on cross cultural empathic responding." The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1): 53 - 63. [Abstract/Full Text]
Two experiments were conducted with US college students to determine whether affective states influence cross-cultural empathy. Participants read about a target who experienced distress and assumed a perspective that was consistent or inconsistent with US norms. When evaluating targets with a dissimilar (versus similar) cultural perspective, participants in neutral affect (Experiments 1 and 2) or negative affect (Experiment 2) conditions exhibited less perspective taking and emotional empathy. However, those differences were not observed for participants in a positive affect condition. Indeed, students in the positive (versus neutral or negative) affect condition exhibited greater perspective taking and feelings of compassion and sympathy for the dissimilar target. Results support (Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319; Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226) broaden and build theory, suggesting positive affect promotes open-minded, flexible thinking and builds social resources.
Howell, A. J. (2009). "Flourishing: Achievement-related correlates of students' well-being." The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1): 1 - 13. [Abstract/Full Text]
Keyes (2005) operationalized flourishing as elevated emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The current study predicted that flourishing among undergraduate students (N = 397) would have adaptive cognitive and behavioral achievement-related correlates. Results showed that students classified as flourishing (21.4% of the sample), relative to those classified as moderately mentally healthy (59.4%) or as languishing (19.1%), were less likely to adopt an entity view of ability or to procrastinate and were more likely to endorse mastery-approach goals, to report high self-control, and to report high grades. Results are cast in terms of possible accounts of the relationship between well-being and achievement-related functioning.
Byron, K. and C. Miller-Perrin (2009). "The value of life purpose: Purpose as a mediator of faith and well-being." The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1): 64 - 70. [Abstract/Full Text]
This study investigated the relationship between faith, life purpose, and well-being, and the potential mediational effects of life purpose between faith and well-being. One hundred and three male and female college students completed a life purpose measure designed for the current study, the General Life Purpose Scale, as well as the Perceived Wellness Scale (Adams, T.B. (1995). The conceptualization and measurement of wellness (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1995). Dissertation Abstracts International, 56, 3111) and the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (Plante, T.G., & Boccaccini, M.T. (1997). The Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. Pastoral Psychology, 45>, 375-387). Results indicated that life purpose significantly mediated the relationship between faith and well-being. The importance of these findings for clinicians and educators is discussed.
Steger, M. F., S. Oishi, et al. (2009). "Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood." The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1): 43 - 52. [Abstract/Full Text]
Meaning in life is thought to be important to well-being throughout the human life span. We assessed the structure, levels, and correlates of the presence of meaning in life, and the search for meaning, within four life stage groups: emerging adulthood, young adulthood, middle-age adulthood, and older adulthood. Results from a sample of Internet users (N = 8756) demonstrated the structural invariance of the meaning measure used across life stages. Those at later life stages generally reported a greater presence of meaning in their lives, whereas those at earlier life stages reported higher levels of searching for meaning. Correlations revealed that the presence of meaning has similar relations to well-being across life stages, whereas searching for meaning is more strongly associated with well-being deficits at later life stages.
Joar Vitters, J., P. l. Overwien, et al. (2009). "Pleasure and interest are differentially affected by replaying versus analyzing a happy life moment." The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1): 14 - 20. [Abstract/Full Text]
Previous research regarding the effects of thinking about a happy moment on emotional experience has been equivocal. The discrepancies may be explained by different modes of thinking: systematically thinking about a happy moment versus mentally replaying the happy moment. Another explanation may involve the difference between the emotion of interest and the emotion of pleasantness, which are often erroneously grouped together under the broad concept of 'positive affect'. We hypothesized that systematically thinking about a happy moment would generate interest, whereas mental replaying would generate pleasantness. In an experimental setting, people who systematically analyzed a happy moment increased feelings of interest, while the level of pleasantness remained unchanged. In the alternative condition, people who mentally replayed a happy moment reported increased interest and pleasantness. At post-intervention, the replay group scored higher on pleasantness, but not on interest, relative to the analyze group.