The results showed that several psychological well-being measures gradually increased within participants from the beginning to the end of the course. That was especially true for life satisfaction, perceived well-being, self-awareness and emotional self-regulation.
The participants in the study also reported a significant decrease in anxiety, perceived stress, negative thoughts, rumination and anger tendencies.
The researchers observed, simultaneously, improvements in the positive aspects and a reduction of negative emotions, both in the short term and longitudinally throughout the program.
Nicola De Pisapia, researcher of the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences of the University of Trento and scientific coordinator, explained the fundamental principles of the study:
“The training that we proposed to the participants was inspired by the idea – present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions – that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others, and the world, towards a better understanding of the human mind and brain. In this training process we need on the one hand the theoretical study of philosophy and science, and on the other meditation practices”.
The study was conducted over nine months (with seven theoretical/practical weekends and two meditation retreats) at the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Tibetan culture in Pomaia (Italy).
For the theoretical part, the participants attended a series of presentations and watched some video courses, and took part in open discussions on topics of psychology, neuroscience, the history of Western thought and the philosophy of life of Buddhism.
The scientific topics included neuroplasticity, the brain circuits of attention and mind wandering, stress and anxiety, pain and pleasure, positive and negative emotions, desire and addiction, the sense of self, empathy and compassion.
For the practical part, a series of exercises were proposed, taken from different, Buddhist and Western, contemplative traditions (for example, meditation on the breath, analytical meditation, personal journal).
In recent years, excluding the “recipes” that mistake happiness for hedonism, and the New Age obsession with positive thinking, research has shown that meditation practices have important benefits for the mind, while studies on happiness and wisdom have been scarce. De Pisapia therefore concluded:
“I believe that in times like these, full of changes and uncertainties, it is fundamental to scientifically study how Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, together with the most recent discoveries on the mind and the brain, can be integrated with contemplative practices in secular way.
The goal is to give healthy people the opportunity to work on themselves to develop authentic happiness, not hedonism or superficial happiness. With this study we wanted to take a small step in this direction”.
Call for Greater Happiness
Most people want to be happy, and many of them look for opportunities to achieve a more satisfying life (Diener et al., 1998). This pursuit seems to be universal, but it is particularly pronounced in modern societies (Veenhoven, 2015). One reason for the heightened interest in happiness is the greater awareness that we have considerable control over our happiness.
Happiness is no longer considered a matter of fate (Nes and Røysamb, 2017), but rather a condition that can actively be pursued, developed, and sustained (Sezer and Can, 2019) and that is a personal responsibility (Elliott and Lemert, 2009). Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2019) argued that 40% of one’s level of happiness is a function of purposeful and intentional action, although that may be an overestimation (Brown and Rohrer, 2019).
Another reason for the call for greater happiness is the rising evidence of the positive effects of happiness on other areas of life such as health (Veenhoven, 2008) and civil behavior (Guven, 2008). Employers are keen to raise happiness in their workforce, particularly in view of the evidence that life satisfaction fosters productivity more than job satisfaction (Gaucher and Veenhoven, 2020; Bergsma and Veenhoven, 2020).
The call for greater happiness is met in two ways: by improving external living conditions and by strengthening life skills that enable people to live in the upper range of their happiness potentials (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, 2019). A new field of research and practice centers around structured training and educational initiatives designed to strengthen individuals’ life skills. This field is aptly labeled “happiness education” and is comparable to, and often intertwined with, existing “health education.” Happiness education can be found in a growing number of advisory books, on self-help websites, and at the mounting supply of (online) courses on happiness (Bergsma, 2008; Parks et al., 2013).
Alongside such education, a practice of happiness coaching has developed (Grant and Spence, 2010; Freire, 2013). Professional life coaches offer advice on how to live a more rewarding life, and they have gained a greater share of the work of psychologists and social workers (Tarragona, 2015). These developments are inspired by the scientific fields of “positive psychology” and “positive education,” which came into existence around the year 2000 and added scientific rigor to practices in the expanding training sector (Boniwell, 2012).
Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) have been developed with the aim of strengthening people. These interventions typically consist of a combination of teaching and exercises. The common aims of such training techniques are to get individuals to see and seek meaning in their work and lives, to know who they are, and to foster positive feelings and self-reliance (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009).
Happiness Training Techniques
One kind of PPI focuses on increasing satisfaction with one’s life. This kind is commonly presented as “happiness training” (Fordyce, 1977). These training techniques help an individual to gain insight into the sources of their happiness and to learn skills that are functional for living a happy life (Feicht et al., 2013).
The focus of these training techniques is not on a specific life domain, such as work or marriage, but on one’s life as a whole (Bergsma and Veenhoven, 2020). An advanced Google search on “happiness training” yielded 69,800 hits in December 2019. Some examples are the “Happiness Training Plan” (College of Well-being, n.d.), the Buddhist-inspired online course “A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment” (Indian School for Business, n.d.), and the Action for Happiness Course (Action for happiness, n.d.).
Doubts About the Effectiveness of Happiness Trainings
The majority of happiness training techniques focus on individuals. Happiness training techniques applicable to organizational contexts are still underdeveloped and not often utilized (Nielsen et al., 2017) since organizations focus on work-related skills and engagement rather than on wider life skills (Ivandic et al., 2017; Donaldson et al., 2019a, b; Roll et al., 2019). One of the reasons for this could be existing doubts about the effectiveness of happiness training interventions (Donaldson et al., 2019b). These doubts are rooted in theories of happiness and in reservations about PPIs in general and about happiness training in particular.
Qualms About the Possibility of Greater Happiness
There are doubts that the level of individual happiness can be raised because, among other concerns, happiness is believed to depend on social comparison. In this view, people are happier if they think they are better off than others, making happiness a zero-sum game (Brickman and Campbell, 1971). Others claim that happiness is part of a fixed genetic disposition and therefore determined by personality traits that remain constant (e.g., Omerod, 2012).
A third reason is that the conscious pursuit of happiness may be self-defeating because higher expectations of happiness will lead to frustration if not realized (e.g., Ford and Mauss, 2014), which implies that the use of a happiness training technique will decrease one’s happiness. A fourth reason is that the pursuit of happiness stimulates people in individualistic societies to focus on individual goals, whereas more socially engaged ways to seek happiness are deemed more effective (Ford et al., 2015). Looking for happiness may even increase loneliness (Mauss et al., 2012), and valuing happiness may give rise to depression (Ford et al., 2014).
Chasing happiness may also be self-defeating if people seek more positive effects directly, while, in contrast, aiming to fulfill basic psychological needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence may yield better results (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, 2019). Although most of these doubts have been discarded in the scientific literature (Veenhoven, 2010), they still live in public opinion. The dark sides of the pursuit of happiness, as well as the caveats and limitations, have a higher attentive value for the media than the stories with a happy ending (Soroka and McAdams, 2015).
Limited Effects of Positive Psychological Interventions (PPIs) in General
Three major meta-analyses on the effectiveness of PPIs have not yielded impressive effects. Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009) reported a modest effect (mean r = +0.29, median r = +0.24) on “well-being.” These numbers are difficult to interpret because the studies covered different notions of well-being, most of which belong in the life-ability quadrant of Figure 1 (see below). Bolier et al. (2013) report a smaller effect (d = +0.34) on subjective well-being that partly waned at follow-up (d = +0.22) and after the removal of outliers (d = +0.17).
The authors were not very specific about the subjective well-being measures they included. Multi-component PPIs have a small to moderate effect on subjective well-being (Hedges’ g = +0.34), but again, the authors were not very specific on the subjective well-being measures they included. The removal of outliers or low-quality studies lowered the effect on well-being (g = + 0.24 without outliers, g = +0.26 for high-quality studies) (Hendriks et al., 2019).
The modest effects of the meta-analyses we described may be too high because negative findings tend to be underreported in scientific literature. A recent re-analysis of the studies included in the first two meta-analyses mentioned above used an improved correction for small sample sizes and found an effect of 0.1 of PPIs on well-being (White et al., 2019).
Reservations About Happiness Training Techniques in Particular
In a recent Delphi study by Buettner et al. (2020), 14 leading scientists rated the effectiveness of “Ways to Greater Happiness” on a five-step scale. Their effectiveness rating for “Develop skills for greater happiness, using self-help or professional coaching” was 3.1, while their average rating for methods such as “Invest in friends and family” and “Get physical exercise” was about 4.
The general public seems to have a mixed attitude toward happiness advice and training. There is much interest but also a lot of skepticism and grumbling about the “tyranny of positivity” (Held, 2002, 2018). One of the reasons may be that the term “happiness” is used to promote the particular trendy practices of the moment, such as meditation and veganism. This is part of the wider problem of the term “happiness” being increasingly used in sales communication as a “feel-good” term (e.g., Coca-Cola with its “Open Happiness” slogan). A shared definition of happiness is lacking, and this is another reason to question the message of happiness coaches and trainers.
Are these doubts about the effectiveness of happiness training techniques justified? In this study we seek to answer the following questions:
• Do happiness training techniques add to happiness?
○ If so, how strong is the effect?
○ If so, how long-lasting is the effect?
• What kind(s) of training techniques work best?
○ What nature of training techniques works best?
○ What modes of training techniques work best?
• What types of people profit most from joining a happiness training course?
Concept of Happiness
In answering these questions, we focus on happiness in the sense of “life satisfaction,” which we will define in detail below. To our knowledge, the research literature on this subject has not been reviewed with that specific definition in mind.
Meanings of the Word
In a broad sense, the word happiness is used to denote a “good life” and used as a synonym for “quality of life” or “well-being.” This meaning prevails in moral philosophy where it serves as a starting point for speculations about what qualities make the best life, such as the importance of “wisdom” (McMahon, 2018). In contemporary social sciences the term is increasingly used for one particular quality of life, that is, how satisfying one’s life is. Since this is a measurable phenomenon, its determinants can be identified inductively using empirical research (Diener et al., 2015).
Definition of Happiness
Happiness is defined as the degree to which individuals judge the overall quality of their life as a whole favorably (Veenhoven, 1984). This definition fits the utilitarian tradition and is most closely associated with Bentham’s (1789) view of happiness, which is described as “the sum of pleasures and pains” (Veenhoven, 2009). This concept is central in the World Database of Happiness, which we draw from for this research synthesis.
Other Notions of Quality of Life and Satisfaction
We realize that some readers will associate “happiness” with other notions of well-being, in particular readers with a background in positive psychology where the term “eudaimonic well-being” is currently used for positive mental health (Delle Fave et al., 2011).
Therefore, we are expanding on this difference using Veenhoven (2000) classification of four qualities of life. This classification is based on two distinctions: vertical and horizontal. Vertically, there is a difference between opportunities and actual outcomes of life. This distinction is important because people can fail to use the life chances offered to them. The horizontal distinction refers to external qualities of the environment and internal qualities of the individual. Together, these two dichotomies produce four qualities of life, all of which have been denoted by the word “happiness.”
In Figure 1, our concept of happiness is positioned in the right-bottom quadrant, as an inner outcome of life. Positive mental health (eudaimonic happiness) belongs in the top-right quadrant of Figure 1, that is, as a precondition for happiness. We only include measures of happiness that belong to the right-bottom quadrant. Our conceptual focus is sharper than that of earlier meta-analyses of positive psychological interventions, which included measures of well-being that also cover other quadrants of Figure 1. As such, our results are easier to interpret.
Components of Happiness
The overall evaluation of life draws on two sources of information: (1) how well we feel most of the time, and (2) to what extent we perceive that we are getting from life what we want from it. We refer to these sub-assessments as “components” of happiness, respectively called “hedonic level of affect” and “contentment” (Veenhoven, 1984). Diener et al. (1999) make a similar distinction between affective and cognitive appraisals of life, but do not conceptualize an overall evaluation in which these appraisals are merged. In this research synthesis we include all three variants, overall happiness and its two components.
Original Research: Open access.
“The Art of Happiness: An Explorative Study of a Contemplative Program for Subjective Well-Being” by Nicola De Pisapia et al. Frontiers in Psychology