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The 5 minute 'Health Read; - Positive Psychology: recent research (December)

I read a fair amount of research and thought some people might be interested in brief updates on recent studies that I've found helpful.  I plan to write an approximately 1,200 word (5 minutes to read) blog post pretty (today's is a little longer!) much every week, highlighting helpful material that has emerged in the previous couple of months.  I'll rotate through six topic areas ... Lifestyle, Positive Psychology, Relationships, Ageing, Psychedelics, and Meditation.  I also plan to write occasional posts where I go into more detail about particular related subject areas. 

Here, for example, are a dozen Positive Psychology posts mostly published in the last few weeks.  At least four of them explicitly mention Gratitude and many years of research highlight that this emphasis is well earned.  Hartanto et al (see below) look at the relevant literature and then report on further work providing still more evidence of the value of this focus.  Zhang & colleagues report on how a daily gratitude exercise is associated with increases in same & next day hedonic & eudaimonic wellbeing.  Srivastava & Iqbal report on links between gratitude and spirituality, finding that participants who were more 'spiritual' benefitted most from the gratitude exercise.  Finally Feraco et al showed that of all the character strengths, it is gratitude (along with hope & zest) that makes specific contributions to wellbeing over and above the general benefits from 'good character'.  

There are also a series of studies on Agency/Autonomy/Self-Direction/Motivation.  Vella-Brodrick & colleagues followed nearly 23,000 Australians over 13 years and showed the crucial importance of Agency for subsequent wellbeing.  In this study Agency was more important than Social Connection for this effect.  Agency was conceptualised here as "the extent to which participants feel in control of their behavior and whether they feel capable and effective."  Zhu & Burrow looking at teenagers "underscore important links between purpose pathways and resilience."  Smith et al highlight the potential helpfulness behind Mandela's famous words "I never lose. I either win or learn", showing this goes beyond resilience to increased thriving.  And Cornwell et al show that, for older adults, flourishing is typically associated with a reduction in growth motivation (wanting to have things get better) but maintenance of three other motivations - truth (wanting to establish what is real), control (wanting to manage what happens), and value/security (wanting to have things not get worse).

Meanwhile, Bianchi et al, Cregg et al and Prinzing et al, all discuss aspects and the value in kindness.  And finally, I do like Chen & Zeng's fairly 'get on with it' paper Seeking pleasure is good, but avoiding pain is bad.  It reminds me Franklin Roosevelt's famous quote "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear."

Bianchi, R. T., F. Cova, et al. (2023).  Is the warm glow actually warm? An experimental investigation into the nature of determinants of warm glow feelings.  International Journal of Wellbeing 13(3): 1-23.

         Giving money to others feels good. It is now standard to use the label ‘warm glow feelings’ to refer to the pleasure people take from giving. But what exactly are warm glow feelings? And why do people experience them? To answer these questions, we ran two studies: a recall task in which participants were asked to remember a donation they made, and a donation task in which  participants were given the opportunity to make  a  donation  before reporting their affective states. Correlational and experimental results converge towards the conclusion that, if the nature of the warm glow is straightforward, its source is multifaceted. Regarding the nature of the ‘warm glow’, the pleasure people took in giving was mainly predicted by one particular type of positive emotion and was indeed described by participants as ‘warm’. Regarding the underlying psychological mechanisms, warm glow feelings were elicited by positive appraisals regarding the donor’s moral character, positive appraisals regarding the actual impact of the donor’s donation on the welfare of others and a feeling of communion with others. We discuss the theoretical implications of our findings.


Chen, H. and Z. Zeng (2023).  Seeking pleasure is good, but avoiding pain is bad: Distinguishing hedonic approach from hedonic avoidance orientations.  Journal of Happiness Studies 24(7): 2377-2393.

         Pursuing hedonia and eudaimonia are two fundamental approaches to achieving happiness. While eudaimonic orientation consistently relates to improved well-being, the relationship between hedonic orientation and well-being remains controversial. Based on theories (e.g., Regulatory Focus Theory), emphasizing the differences between approach and avoidance motivations, this research proposes two different hedonic orientations: a hedonic approach orientation focusing on seeking pleasant feelings and a hedonic avoidance orientation focusing on avoiding painful feelings. Across two studies (total n = 2599), we modified a previous measure of happiness orientation to assess hedonic approach, hedonic avoidance, and eudaimonic orientations, validated the new scale, and investigated their associations with self-reported well-being. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses revealed that hedonic approach, hedonic avoidance, and eudaimonic orientations are three distinct happiness orientations. Furthermore, hierarchical regression analyses revealed that hedonic approach orientation was positively related to well-being, mostly when adjusted for hedonic avoidance orientation. Eudaimonic orientation has consistently been associated with improved well-being. Hedonic avoidance orientation provided a unique contribution over and above the former two orientations and was negatively related to well-being. These findings indicate that motives for seeking pleasure are beneficial, while those for avoiding pain are harmful, which clarifies how people’s pursuit of happiness is linked to experienced well-being and highlights the importance of distinguishing between hedonic approach and hedonic avoidance orientations.


Cornwell, J. F. M., E. Nakkawita, et al. (2023).  Motivation and well-being across the lifespan: A cross-sectional examination.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(5): 688-694.

         Research focusing on motivation has consistently identified changes in motivational emphases as individuals age. However, whether these same patterns exist with respect to more domain-general conceptualizations of these motives has not yet been examined. Furthermore, researchers have not determined whether these differences in motivations across age groups are associated with differences in different measures of well-being. Using three cross-sectional samples, we examine the relative importance individuals place on different motivational domains across different age groups. In Studies 1a and 1b, we show that age is negatively associated with growth motive importance, but is unassociated with security, control, or epistemic motive importance. In Study 2, we show that older adults who do not show this de-emphasis of growth motives have significantly lower life satisfaction and lower self-reported flourishing relative to those older adults who do demonstrate the typical reduced emphasis. Implications for these findings for happiness across age groups are discussed.


Cregg, D. R. and J. S. Cheavens (2023).  Healing through helping: An experimental investigation of kindness, social activities, and reappraisal as well-being interventions.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 924-941.

         Social connection is vital to well-being and is often impaired among individuals with anxiety or depressive disorders, yet CBT techniques may be ineffective at improving social connection (Hofmann et al., 2014). Acts of kindness may more effectively improve social connection and related dimensions of well-being than prevailing CBT techniques. In this study, we randomly assigned individuals with elevated anxiety or depression symptoms (N = 122) to engage in acts of kindness (AK), social activities (SA), or thought records, i.e., cognitive reappraisal (CR). Multilevel modeling revealed that improvement was greater in the AK group than the CR and SA groups for social connection, and improvement was greater in the AK group than the CR group for depression/anxiety symptoms and life satisfaction. Time-lagged analyses indicated that public self-absorption mediated the effects of AK. These results converge with prior experiments to demonstrate the advantages of acts of kindness over prevailing CBT techniques.


Feraco, T., N. Casali, et al. (2023).  Is good character all that counts? A comparison between the predictive role of specific strengths and a general factor of “good character” using a bifactor model.  Journal of Happiness Studies 24(7): 2353-2376.

         Character strengths have been found to consistently predict many positive psychological outcomes, such as well-being, life satisfaction, and mental health, but research on the topic is still at its infancy and some methodological limitations must be overcome to better understand what character strengths are and what is their role. One main issue concerns the structure of character strengths and virtues, which may undermine the credibility and replicability of previous findings. Using two different samples (with 13,439 and 944 participants), we confirm that character strengths can be well described by a bifactor model reflecting the simultaneous existence of a general factor of ‘good character’ and the 24 specific character strengths. We found that the general factor consistently predicts participants’ life satisfaction, mental health, and distress symptoms. In addition, we show that the specific character strengths (with the few exceptions represented by gratitude, hope, and zest) do not predict life satisfaction and mental health above and beyond the general factor. These results highlight the need to better understand what this general factor really represents to finally capture the mechanisms linking character strengths between each other and with external outcomes. Implications for the measurement and interpretation of character strengths and for strength-based interventions are discussed.


Hartanto, A., M. Kaur, et al. (2023).  A critical examination of the effectiveness of gratitude intervention on well-being outcomes: A within-person experimental daily diary approach.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 942-957.

         Given the rise in the global prevalence of stress and depressive symptoms, there is an increasing need to identify promising interventions that promote well-being. One potential intervention that has been widely discussed in the literature on improving well-being is the practice of gratitude. However, findings on its effectiveness have been marred by inconsistency and publication bias. Building upon past studies, the current study aims to revisit the effect of a gratitude contemplation intervention on multiple well-being outcomes by using a within-person experimental design with a daily diary approach. Multilevel modeling showed that the gratitude contemplation intervention had a significant within-person effect on multiple daily well-being outcomes including negative affect, perceived stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Moreover, the results were robust across varying levels of personality traits. Our study provides another line of evidence to the literature supporting the benefits of gratitude contemplation intervention.


Prinzing, M. M., C. A. Sappenfield, et al. (2023).  What makes me matter?  Investigating how and why people feel significant.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 995-1011.

         There are various ways in which, and reasons why, people can think that they matter. In three studies (total N = 1,528 US adults and undergraduates) we investigated perceptions of mattering overall, to other people (generally), to close others (like family and friends), in one?s society, and in the grand scheme of the universe. Each was a distinct construct, displaying unique patterns of association with psychological traits and mental health outcomes, including perceived meaning in life and suicidal ideation. We content-coded participants' explanations of their overall perceptions, finding that most participants mentioned people and other Earthly concerns, whereas few mentioned the cosmos. In a randomized, controlled experiment, participants reminded of the size of the universe perceived themselves to matter less in the cosmos, but more to close others. Overall, results demonstrate important differences between forms of perceived mattering and suggest that social factors play an outsized role in overall perceptions.


Smith, B., K. Albonico, et al. (2023).  The brief thriving scale: Assesing the ability to learn, grow, and find benefits in stressful events.  InternationalJournal of Wellbeing 13(3): 134-150.

         While much research has focused on the ability to recover from the negative effects of  stress,  little  has  examined  our  potential  for  benefitting  from  stressful  events.  The  current studies validated the Brief Thriving Scale (BTS), which assesses the ability to learn, grow, and benefit from stress. Participants were 855 undergraduate who completed the BTS, a battery of health-related measures, and the Brief Resilience Scale (BRS; Smith et al., 2008), which assesses resilience  as  the  ability  to  bounce  back  from  stress.  Exploratory  and  confirmatory  factor analyses demonstrated the  construct  validity of the  BTS and correlation analyses supported convergent  and  divergent  validity.  Multiple  regression  analyses  showed  that  the  BTS  was consistently related to better health when controlling for the BRS. While the BRS was a stronger predictor of negative mental health (e.g., lower negative emotion, depression), the BTS was a stronger  predictor  of  positive  mental  health  (e.g.,  higher  positive  emotion,  meaning)  and general physical health.


Srivastava, S. and N. Iqbal (2023).  Gratitude exercise and well-being in relation to spirituality: A mixed-method study.  InternationalJournal of Wellbeing 13(3): 111-133.

         Previous studies have shown inconsistent results regarding the effectiveness of gratitude exercises on well-being. Several researchers suggested this inconsistency could be due to the frequency of performing the exercise, the type of comparison group used in the study, and due to the presence of some moderators like positive affect, trait gratitude, spirituality, religiosity, etc. Out of these variables, the present study tried to examine the role of spirituality. The present investigation experimentally studied the effect of a 4-week gratitude exercise on the well-being of a sample of working Indian adults while examining spirituality as a moderator. Participants were randomly allotted to the gratitude exercise group and control group, consisting of 60 participants in each group (N = 120). The present study employed a sequential explanatory mixed method. The quantitative results were analyzed using a mixed-design ANOVA. The results found a significant increase in gratitude, satisfaction with life, and positive affect and a significant decrease in the negative affect of participants in the gratitude group at post-exercise and follow-up compared to the control group. Spirituality was found to be a significant moderator as participants with high levels of spirituality benefited the most from the gratitude exercise. For the qualitative part, an interpretative phenomenological analysis was used. Three themes: Experience of performing the gratitude exercise, gratitude expressed towards and, benefits of the exercise were identified which were further categorized under several subthemes. Mixing of the study was done at the interpretation level where qualitative data was used to contextualize the quantitative findings.


Vella-Brodrick, D., M. Joshanloo, et al. (2023).  Longitudinal relationships between social connection, agency, and emotional well-being: A 13-year study.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 883-893.

         Social connection and agency are typically conceptualized as antecedents of well-being, yet the relative contributions of each for well-being are not yet well known. Moreover, whether or not well-being can lead to social connection and agency has not received sufficient research attention. In the present study, we test longitudinal effects of social connection, agency, and emotional well-being over a time span encompassing 13-years and four quadrennial measurement waves (total N = 22,980). Controlling for age and gender, random-intercept cross-lagged structural equation modelling suggested that earlier emotional well-being significantly predicted future agency and social connection. Similarly, earlier agency predicted future emotional well-being and social connection. However, contrary to previous findings, earlier social connection did not significantly predict emotional well-being or agency in the future. These results suggest that building emotional well-being, in addition to agency, may lead to the best social, emotional and cognitive well-being outcomes.


Zhang, L., W. Li, et al. (2023).  Being grateful every day will pay off: A daily diary investigation on relationships between gratitude and well-being in Chinese young adults.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 853-865.

         Preceding research has demonstrated the positive relation between gratitude and well-being at the trait level, but less is known about the day-to-day association between them. This study investigated the within-person associations of gratitude with hedonic and eudaimonic well-being using a daily diary design. A sample of 363 young adults (M = 19.77, SD = 1.84) finished an online questionnaire once a day for 14 consecutive days. The results indicated that gratitude was positively related to hedonic and eudaimonic well-being on the same day, and gratitude positively predicted next-day hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, but not vice versa. We also found the reciprocal relation between the cognitive component of daily hedonic well-being (i.e., life satisfaction) and daily gratitude measured by the Gratitude Questionnaire. Moreover, these cross-lagged relations were not moderated by trait gratitude. These results provide supportive and convincing evidence for the positive effect of gratitude at the state level.


Zhu, G. and A. L. Burrow (2023).  Gains in youth resilience during self-driven learning may be moderated by their pathways to purpose.  The Journal of Positive Psychology 18(6): 841-852.

         Research suggests a sense of purpose begins developing in earnest during adolescence, which may shape youth's interests and resilience. Here, we explored the types of purpose orientations reflected in youth's applications to a self-driven learning program, and how distinct pathways by which youth pursued these purposes moderated their resilience throughout the program. A content analysis of 356 youth's (Mage = 16.53, 57.02% female) descriptions of and rationales for choosing their learning topics found that career, creative, and prosocial purposes were the most prevalent; and about 70% of participants indicated following proactive pathways toward purposes. Moreover, youth’s resilience significantly increased throughout the program, a pattern amplified among youth whose applications revealed a proactive purpose pathway (gradually developing and pursuing an interest) relative to reactive or social-learning pathways. Findings underscore important links between purpose pathways and resilience and have implications for designing learning opportunities that facilitate positive youth development.


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