Priorities for the Japanese Economy in 2014 (December 2013)

What Makes People Happier?

Senior Fellow, RIETI

Being happy is what many people pursue in their lives, and a number of studies have revealed that happiness is accompanied by other desirable by-products. To cite some examples, happy people tend to succeed in life (Note 1), be healthy and live longer (Note 2), and be resilient to deterioration in physical functions as they age (Note 3). In other words, these examples suggest causal relationships of happiness leading to success and health.

Does writing down three good things every day make people happy?

What makes people happy? People may have certain assumptions on how to become happy. Some may think that if they had more money, they would be happier. Others may think that if they get a promotion, they would be happier. Such assumptions reflect a thinking that happiness results from changes in the external environment.

Another way of looking at happiness is to think that people can be happy through changes in their mentality, without changes in the external environment. This manner is represented by a recent branch of psychology called positive psychology, with many research projects being carried out under the assumption that the degree of happiness can be raised, without any changes in the external environment, through exercises that make the person focus their attention on their personal strengths or positive things about the world around them (Note 4).

One famous exercise devised in positive psychology is the "Three Good Things Exercise," in which the subjects write down three good things. Martin Seligman, one of the original proponents of positive psychology, and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which their subjects were asked to write down, every day before they went to bed, three good things that had happened to them during the day and why these things happened. The subjects were made to repeat this routine for one week. After this exercise, enhanced degrees of happiness and reduced degrees of depressive symptoms were observed in the subjects, and this effect was confirmed to have lasted half a year later (Note 5).

At RIETI, we examined whether this exercise of writing down three good things is actually effective under a project which I lead. We randomly divided 1,000 subjects into two groups: the Three Good Things (TGT) group, who were asked to write down three good things at least twice per week, and the control group, who were asked to write down three memories from the past at least twice per week. Both groups continued this for four weeks (Note 6).

After the four-week exercise, positive emotions such as happiness were observed to have been enhanced for the TGT group, but such enhancement reverted to levels close to the pre-exercise levels after another four weeks. No statistically significant changes in the subjects' depressive symptoms were observed after the exercise.

To sum up, the TGT exercise had the effect of raising positive emotions temporarily, but not long lasting, and it didn't alleviate depressive symptoms. While in Seligman's experiment the subjects wrote down good things every day before going to bed and continued this for a week, our subjects wrote down three good things twice per week at any time of the day for four weeks. Direct comparison between the two experiments is impossible. However, our study suggests that the TGT exercise is not as effective as it may be assumed to be.

Studies for alleviating depression may lead to enhancement in happiness

Our experiment ended up with a disappointing result, but it also produced other important insights that can be put to good use in the future. One is that efforts to alleviate depressive symptoms are also likely to lead to enhanced happiness to the person. Our experiment showed there is a negative correlation between the indicator of depressive symptoms and that of positive emotions (correlation coefficient: r = -0.64). This indicates that efforts to alleviate depressive symptoms can help enhance happiness (Note 7). Positive psychology's approach may be seen as trying to reduce the negatives by looking at the positives. By contrast, the above finding suggests potential for an approach to enhance the positives by trying to reduce the negatives, so to speak.

Actually, there are some significantly advanced studies on the approach to reducing negatives. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction are some of the therapeutic methods used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. However, many of the existing therapeutic programs assume the treatment of people with mental disorders, and few programs are devised for the treatment of minor depressive symptoms which are suffered frequently by many people. In addition, many of the existing programs have been produced in English, meaning that they are not available to many Japanese until they are translated. Some of them have made their way to Japan, including alternative therapies, but not enough effort has been made to verify the effectiveness of promising programs. (A method called the randomized controlled trial is usually used for such verification.)

At RIETI this year, I am planning to conduct full-fledged verification of the effectiveness of user-friendly methods for alleviating minor depressive symptoms and enhancing happiness, through collaboration with experts such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. My plan is to use the randomized controlled trial method to test Internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapies, methods to alleviate minor depressive symptoms through reading, and alternative therapies (programs that have often been reported to be effective but for which there has not been any formal medical verification) to see if any of these programs are sufficient for the national or local governments to promote in the future.

December 27, 2013
  1. ^ Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener E. (2005). "The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?" Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-55; De Neve, J., & Oswald, A.J. (2012). "Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive affect on later income using sibling fixed effects," PNAS, 109, 19953-19958.
  2. ^ Diener, E., & Chan, M.Y. (2011). "Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity." Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 1-43.
  3. ^ Hirosaki, M., Ishimoto, Y., Kasahara, Y., Konno, A., Kimura, Y., Fukutomi, E., Chen, W., Nakatsuka, M., Fujisawa, M., Sakamoto, R., Ishine, M., Okumiya, K., Otsuka, K., Wada, T., & Matsubayashi, K. (2013). "Positive affect as a predictor of lower risk of functional decline in community-dwelling elderly in Japan," Geriatrics & Gerontology International, 13, 1051-8.
  4. ^ Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. The Free Press.
  5. ^ Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). "Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions," American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
  6. ^ Sekizawa, Y. & Yoshitake, N. (2013) "Does Writing Three Good Things Make Japanese People Happier?" RIETI Discussion Paper Series, 13-J-073.
  7. ^ Sekizawa, Y.,Yoshitake, N., & Goto Y. (2013) "Examination of the Relationship between Psychological Traits and the Consumer Confidence Index," RIETI Discussion Paper Series, 13-J-074.

January 16, 2014

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