Monday, February 23, 2015

Is there reliable evidence that people can learn to be happier?

There is plenty of evidence that people who use cognitive reappraisal strategies -  for example, changing the way they think about situations in order to reduce negative emotion – tend to have higher life satisfaction than those who try to suppress negative emotion. There is also a growing body of research findings that such skills can be learned and that some reappraisal strategies are more effective than others.

A recent study by Bryan Denny and Kevin Ochsner compared the effects of training using two common variants of reappraisal: distancing and reinterpretation. Distancing involves reappraisal of an emotional event by viewing it from the perspective of a third person observer or an objective, impartial observer. Reinterpretation involves reappraisal by changing the meaning of actions, context or outcomes e.g. by inventing a more positive story to interpret the event.

The 103 participants in the study were divided into three groups: on receiving training only in distancing; one receiving training only in reinterpretation and a third group that was asked to respond naturally to stimuli, but not trained in any form of reappraisal. The training was provided in four sessions separated by 2-5 days. Participants were presented with images and asked to let themselves respond naturally. Those who had been given reappraisal training were also asked to reappraise images.

Both distancing and reinterpretation led to drops in self-reported negative emotional responses over the four sessions. Participants in the distancing group also experienced drops in negative emotional response when they were asked to respond naturally. The results suggest that people can learn to make distancing a habitual response to emotional stimuli during a relatively short training course.

In another recent study Rachel Ranney, Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk compared the impact of three brief online cognitive reappraisal interventions: self-distancing (watching a personal negative experience as a fly on the wall); temporal distancing (considering the event from the perspective of their future selves); and positive reframing (identifying positive aspects of the experience). The results showed training in temporal distancing to be effective in raising well-being and positive reframing to be effective in reducing ill-being.

I went looking for evidence that people can learn to be happier to follow-up my preceding post about regret. I concluded that post by resisting the temptation to suggest that people who suffer from regrets that do not serve a useful purpose should learn cognitive retraining. At that stage I was not able to cite reliable evidence that such training was effective. Having found some evidence, however, I am not still not sure how effective it would be in dealing with regrets.

If someone regrets a bad choice made a long time ago, temporal distancing is unlikely to work. Viewing the choice as an impartial observer might not help either if it was a really bad choice. Positive reframing could help the person concerned to see something positive in the experience – for example, it could be seen as a learning experience, inducing positive changes in personality. Such reframing is likely to be difficult, however, if the person concerned believes that personality is fixed for life.

There is evidence that the implicit theories that people have about the extent to which attributes such as personality can change has important implications for their mental health. A recent study by Hans Schroder, Sindes Dawood, Matthew Yalch, Brent Donnellan and Jason Moser has shown that people who believe that their attributes can change report greater use of cognitive reappraisal and fewer mental health symptoms. This raises the question of whether people who currently believe that their attributes are set in stone are capable of learning to adopt a mind-set more conducive to improvement.

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