If you’ve ever succumbed to bouts of depression, sadness, the blues, whatever you’d like to call it, you may appreciate the struggle in determining how to treat it. Meds? Therapy? Ignore the whole thing and just hope it goes away?
As it turns out, there’s new research showing that something called Positive Activity Interventions — things like practising daily gratitude and performing acts of kindness regularly — can help treat some people with depression. To find out more, I talked to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, who led the review study.
Q: How can positive thinking and behaviours affect those with depression?
A: It can happen through “upward spirals” (i.e., a positive thought or activity or emotion leads you to feel less depressed and happier, which leads you to have more positive thoughts/emotions, etc.). As I wrote in my book, happiness activities boost positive emotions, but researchers have also shown that positive feelings can foil the effects of negative feelings.
A second benefit of happiness activities is that they boost positive thinking. They can counteract the negative bias by helping us unlearn our patterns of negative thinking.
Third, happiness activities encourage positive experiences. Practicing the nurturing relationships activity yields periods of relaxation and contentment in the company of family and friends. Practicing acts of kindness produces moments in which we suddenly feel appreciated.
Q: Are these kinds of actions effective for most or all patients?
A: One of the themes of my research is the importance of fit — we all must find the positive activities that fit our personalities, goals, values, resources and lifestyles. So, yes, positive activities can help all depressed patients, but they need to find the activities they feel comfortable doing and that will be most effective for them.
Q: Why hasn’t this been looked at before? Or has it and it was just not given enough attention?
A: Positive activities (and emotions and thoughts) are part of quite a few therapies. For example, behavioural therapists often give patients “pleasant activities” homework to do. However, the emphasis has usually been on “fixing” what is wrong rather than building positive resources.
Q: Is there anything we can take from your research and apply to our every day lives?
A: Sure. Whether you’re clinically depressed or just want to be happier, you can begin today in engaging in positive activities in your life — like being more grateful, optimistic and forgiving; exercising and meditating, nurturing their relationships, living more in the present and pursuing meaningful goals.
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