Empirically Tested Interventions

{Biswas-Diener, 2008. Invitation to Positive Psychology: Research and Tools for the Professional. A 6-week Course.}

What is a Positive Intervention?

James Pawelski teaches a course called “Positive Interventions,” where he asks the basic question: what are positive interventions?

Positive interventions can be practices we engage in to achieve desirable outcomes, such as therapy for depression or physical exercise. Or, they can be tools that use only distinctly positive methods. The answer to what constitutes such interventions is not immediately clear, and a discussion of an accurate definition can be helpful.

Positive interventions are defined more by their focus than their method, as they focus on optimal rather than normal functioning.

Pawelski uses a metaphor to explain this: imagine a person recovering from surgery and visiting a physical therapist to recover “normal” functioning. Now, imagine a person visiting a personal trainer at a gym to take an already healthy body and make it perform even better.

Pawelski offers another insight into using techniques to promote positivity, relating to a problem versus solution focus. He uses a metaphor to clarify the issue: if you were magically granted superpowers but could only have one of two kinds, which would you choose?

Most people will lean towards dealing with problems, but the second type of power has longer-term benefits. It will help equip people with the ability to deal with their problems.

Pawelski’s thought experiment exposes two points: first, that dealing with both problems and solutions is superior to focusing on either one alone, and second, that promoting positivity is highly worthwhile.

Positive psychologists have begun testing various techniques and now have a preliminary toolbox for increasing positivity.

Empirically Supported Interventions

Religious leaders, coaches, and self-help gurus have been trying to steer us toward what we want in life, such as morality, success, health, recognition, and happiness.

However, this advice has traditionally been given formulaically, as if these methods ought to work equally well for everyone.

Positive psychology, in recent years, has been gravitating more and more towards being an applied science, and researchers are interested in how best to put their findings to use in everyday life.

There are few empirically validated interventions, but some good ideas about the effectiveness and limits of the handful of interventions have already been scrutinized.

Martin Seligman and his research team wrote an article that showed that there were reliable tools for decreasing depression and increasing happiness.

One of these tools was identifying and using personal strengths linked to health, helping behaviors, creativity, and desirable outcomes at work.

Seligman’s research showed that some positive psychology tools have fairly long-lasting effects. For example, experimental groups showed more happiness than control groups, even months after the intervention.

Strength interventions have received empirical support for their efficacy. There have also been many other positive interventions that have received research attention and support for their effectiveness, some of which Sonja Lyubomirsky documents in her book The How of Happiness.

Expressing Gratitude

is the most widely used of all interventions and a simple way to make sure we say thank you.

A Gallup study found that 65% of Americans reported receiving no recognition for a job well done in the year preceding the poll.

Usually, we are good at remembering to praise our children and express formal thanks. Still, if this is the extent of our gratitude, we are missing many golden opportunities.

The gratitude exercise, also known as the three blessings exercise, is a widely effective tool for expressing gratitude.

People are asked to keep a daily gratitude journal and record three things they are grateful for daily.

This simple exercise can be as broad as “I am thankful to be alive” or as specific as “I am thankful to have a working refrigerator.”

Seligman’s research and other studies have confirmed that this is a widely effective tool, and 80% or more enjoy the activity and report more positivity, and 15% continue the activity long after the assignment is over.

Keep a gratitude log for the coming week to see how it affects you.

Another exercise is to write a letter of gratitude to someone instrumental in helping you in some important way.

This activity taps a slightly different aspect of gratitude than being thankful for ongoing good work or everyday help.

These letters are typically written to parents, coaches, mentors, teachers, or others who have profoundly impacted your development.

It can be an emotionally powerful experience, even if you do not intend to post it.

The “gratitude visit” is an in-person version of the gratitude letter, but it can be daunting.

Research shows that this small activity boosts happiness and that the stimulating effects of this type of journaling can last months.

Some folks, like Tal Ben-Shahar, author of the book Happier, report that they have done this activity daily for years and still reap psychological benefits.

The gratitude exercise is an effective way to stay aware of the good things around us.

Humans have an extraordinary capacity to adapt to new circumstances, but this ability can quickly habituate us, and we quickly lose the emotional thrill of novel events.

The gratitude exercise can serve as a psychological antidote to this process, keeping us aware of the good things around us and avoiding the drudgery of the mundane world.

It can also have spillover effects, such as priming ourselves to pay attention to a broad array of positives.

Positive Reminiscence

is an intervention that has received empirical support. It involves people recalling a positive event from the past, such as a wedding or a time they are proud of.

Fred Bryant, a researcher at the University of Chicago, has suggested doing this activity with physical memorabilia, such as trophies, college degrees, printed emails, or photographs.

This technique has been used with executives and students to build confidence.

Another variation on positive reminiscence is to create a “positive portfolio.”

This portfolio can contain student thank you letters, a touching anniversary card, a photocopy of a university diploma, an acceptance letter, or other tallies of personal achievement.

These portfolios can boost confidence before a presentation or interview or increase positivity when needed.

Positive reminiscence is the psychological act of savoring.

Savoring is about taking a positive moment and mentally stretching it out, extending it, and making it last a bit longer.

It is an internal process, and one doesn’t have to worry much about social conventions regarding humility.

Positive reminiscence and savoring are different from bragging and can be learned.

One method is to take a mental snapshot of a success as it happens, cataloging what the room looked like, who was present, how you felt, and so forth.

Paying close attention to the details will help to conjure specific images for later savoring.

The “best possible self” exercise

combines imagining one’s best self and the cathartic free writing experience.

It was born out of research showing that when people wrote expressively, they tended to feel better.

However, if done improperly, this tool can backfire, as some people are apt to compare their current self with their optimal self and leave feeling disappointed.

To get around this problem, King encourages people to write about a possible “future self.”

A typical instruction for this activity might read:

“Imagine yourself in the future.

Imagine everything has gone as well as it could have, and you have gotten most of the important things to you.

Describe this life.”

This sets the stage for people to take stock of their values and define their aspirations.

People are asked to write continually, letting their thoughts and feelings flow. The emphasis should be on committing words to the page without care for grammar or punctuation. This flow helps folks engage with less self-censorship, fewer criticisms, and less fear that their vision isn’t realistic.

“The best possible self” exercise results in a little boost of inspiration and motivation to rise to this potential. It is appropriate for people in a new position, taking on a new project, or facing a difficult problem.


has emerged in the research literature as one of the activities that promote wellbeing and positivity.

Doing good deeds for family members, friends, and even strangers helps us connect to a sense of purpose in life and feel we are fulfilling some critical moral mission.

Examples of helping others allow us to feel good when we reflect on them and make the world a better place in some small way.

A study looking at keeping track of kindnesses produced a counter-intuitive result.

The researchers asked participants in the first experimental group to practice five small acts of kindness in a single day and those in another group to practice the same number of kindnesses across a week.

The researchers found that those who clustered their generosity in a single day showed the greatest benefits.

This has implications for psychotherapy patients, students, and the workplace, as lending a hand is easy, and the emotional payoff can be significant.

Broad Interventions

There is a distinction between production and satisfaction goals related to organizational change.

Production goals relate to the organization’s mission, such as selling magazine subscriptions, manufacturing ball-point pens, or developing cutting-edge advertising campaigns.

Production goals are the Hollywood stars of organizational goals because they are most obviously related to the Oscar award for business: the bottom line.

When looking to change an organization, production goals often get the lion’s share of attention.

Managers and executives consider how resources can be used differently to increase productivity.

Satisfaction goals are those related to the subjective wellbeing of individual employees.

These goals are like looking at a body’s internal health, ensuring all the individual organs function properly and work together well.

Although productivity in an organization might surge upward for a quarter, employee satisfaction can go down simultaneously.

This could lead to short-term dissatisfaction, long-term productivity drops, and rises in absenteeism and turnover.

The most effective change policies attend to both productivity and satisfaction goals.

Leaders set the pace of organizational change and act as an exemplar of the new culture. This includes modeling positivity, tailoring positive interventions to teams, and creating structures for positivity.

An example is the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology, which has developed a routine that promotes the best in its staff: positive 360s. In a positive 360, staff members come together face-to-face and give positive feedback to one another. People tell their colleagues what they appreciate and what strengths they see being played out during the work day, list their peers’ successes, and discuss anything they would like their colleagues to change because it is unhelpful. The result is remarkable: employees who feel valued, praised, engaged, and are more willing to change behaviors that are not productive.

Additionally, autonomy-support is crucial to positive motivation, as autonomy-supportive managers give skilled workers lee-way to decide for themselves “how” to accomplish their goals.

Avoiding “One-size-fits-all”

Positive psychology has quickly produced and validated interventions, but few have been tested rigorously. Of those that have, preliminary proof of their efficacy has been found.

It is nice to have tools that have been empirically supported. Still, some potential has been over-promised or applied too formulaically. Remember the adage, “If your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

Coaches, consultants, and therapists widely use the gratitude exercise because research has shown it works. But knowing which positive interventions work, how to choose which to use with whom, and being aware of the appropriateness of the intervention is essential.

Jordan Silberman conducted preliminary research in which he allowed coaching clients in one group to choose their positive intervention. In contrast, those in a second group were assigned (in equal proportions) to these same interventions.

He found that the positive interventions increased happiness and decreased depression, on average, across groups and interventions, replicating earlier studies.

However, there were no differences in the efficacy of the intervention based on whether it was freely chosen or assigned.

This suggests that trial and error is the best way to decide between and work with positive interventions.

Positive psychology is not a one-size-fits-all approach to life. Knowing that a given intervention has received research support differs from knowing with whom it will best work, when it will best work, and why.

Sonja Lyubomirsky has conducted studies showing that “fit” is very important to intervention success.

She and her colleagues have found that standard positive psychology interventions work better for some people than others.

For a person to benefit, they must be intrinsically motivated to participate in the intervention, put in the effort required, and see it through until it pays off.

Additionally, people must see interventions as consonant with their identities and values.

The more you can tailor interventions to your specific work area, the more beneficial and effective they will likely be.