Positive Psychology Progress
Empirical Validation of Interventions
Martin E. P. Seligman and Tracy A. Steen
University of Pennsylvania
University of Rhode Island
University of Michigan
Positive psychology has flourished in the last 5 years. The
authors review recent developments in the field, including
books, meetings, courses, and conferences. They also dis-
cuss the newly created classification of character strengths
and virtues, a positive complement to the various editions
of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disor-
ders (e. g., American Psychiatric Association, 1994), and
present some cross-cultural findings that suggest a surpris-
ing ubiquity of strengths and virtues. Finally, the authors
focus on psychological interventions that increase individ-
ual happiness. In a 6-group, random-assignment, placebo-
controlled Internet study, the authors tested 5 purported
happiness interventions and 1 plausible control exercise.
They found that 3 of the interventions lastingly increased
happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. Positive
interventions can supplement traditional interventions that
relieve suffering and may someday be the practical legacy
of positive psychology.
emotion, positive character, and positive institutions (Se-
ligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Drawing on methods
effectively used to advance the science of mental disorders,
positive psychologists have been studying mental health
and well-being. Building on pioneering work by Rogers
(1951), Maslow (1954, 1962), Jahoda (1958), Erikson
(1963, 1982), Vaillant (1977), Deci and Ryan (1985), and
Ryff and Singer (1996)—among many others—positive
psychologists have enhanced our understanding of how,
why, and under what conditions positive emotions, positive
character, and the institutions that enable them flourish
(e.g., Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Easterbrook, 2003;
Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001; Kahneman,
Diener, & Schwarz, 1999; Murray, 2003; Vaillant, 2000).
Positive psychologists do not claim to have invented
the good life or to have ushered in its scientific study, but
the value of the overarching term positive psychology lies
in its uniting of what had been scattered and disparate lines
of theory and research about what makes life most worth
living (Peterson & Park, 2003). As the basic science con-
tinues, other lines of work are moving into the realm of
Keywords: positive psychology, happiness, character
ive years have passed since the American Psychol-
ogist devoted its millennial issue to the emerging
science of positive psychology: the study of positive
application (Linley & Joseph, 2004). Can psychologists
take what they have learned about the science and practice
of treating mental illness and use it to create a practice of
making people lastingly happier? That is, can they create
an evidence-based practice of positive psychology?
In this article, we first review the recent growth within
positive psychology. Next, we describe basic research that
bears on whether people can become lastingly happier, and
then we present the results of our own happiness interven-
tions that we rigorously tested with a randomized, placebo-
Positive psychology is an umbrella term for the study of
positive emotions, positive character traits, and enabling
institutions. Research findings from positive psychology
are intended to supplement, not remotely to replace, what is
known about human suffering, weakness, and disorder. The
intent is to have a more complete and balanced scientific
understanding of the human experience—the peaks, the
valleys, and everything in between. We believe that a
complete science and a complete practice of psychology
should include an understanding of suffering and happi-
ness, as well as their interaction, and validated interven-
tions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness—
two separable endeavors.
Editor’s note. Martin E. P. Seligman was president of APA in 1998. This
article is based in part on his presidential address, delivered in Boston at
APA’s 107th Annual Convention on August 21, 1999. This article updates
the progress of research on positive psychology in a follow-up to the
January 2000 special issue of the American Psychologist.
Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania; Nansook Park, Depart-
ment of Psychology, University of Rhode Island; Christopher Peterson,
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan.
This research was supported by the Annenberg/Sunnylands Trust
Foundation, by Atlantic Philanthropies, by the John Marks Templeton
Foundation, and by National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH63430.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Martin E. P. Seligman, Positive Psychology Center, University of
Pennsylvania, 3701 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 or to
Christopher Peterson, Department of Psychology, University of Mich-
igan, 525 East University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109. E-mail:
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Martin E. P. Seligman and Tracy A. Steen, Positive
410July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association 0003-066X/05/$12.00
Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–421DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
In the last five years, aside from a special issue and a
special section of the American Psychologist (January 2000
and January 2001, respectively), literally hundreds of arti-
cles have appeared in the scholarly and popular press on the
topics of positive psychology. Books have begun to appear,
for example, The Handbook of Positive Psychology (Sny-
der & Lopez, 2002), Authentic Happiness (Seligman,
2002), A Psychology of Human Strengths (Aspinwall &
Staudinger, 2003), Flourishing (Keyes & Haidt, 2003),
Positive Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models
and Measures (Lopez & Snyder, 2004), Positive Psychol-
ogy in Practice (Linley & Joseph, 2004), and Handbook of
Methods in Positive Psychology (Ong & van Dulmen, in
press). These volumes summarize the empirical findings
and the methods used in the science.
We want to highlight our own Character Strengths
and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV; Peter-
son & Seligman, 2004). The CSV represents the most
ambitious project self-consciously undertaken from the
perspective of positive psychology, and we intend it to do
for psychological well-being what the Diagnostic and Sta-
tistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the Ameri-
can Psychiatric Association (1994) does for the psycholog-
ical disorders that disable human beings. The CSV
describes and classifies strengths and virtues that enable
human thriving. Although we were respectful of the DSM,
we attempted to avoid some of its problems by making
clear why some entries were included in the CSV and others
excluded, by regarding positive traits as individual differ-
ences that exist in degrees rather than as all-or-nothing
categories, and by developing reliable and valid assessment
strategies (questionnaires, surveys, interviews, and infor-
mant reports; Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005a).
The general scheme of the CSV relies on six overar-
ching virtues that almost every culture across the world
endorses: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance,
and transcendence (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, in
press). Under each virtue, we identified particular strengths
that met the following criteria:
● ubiquity—is widely recognized across cultures
● fulfilling—contributes to individual fulfillment, sat-
isfaction, and happiness broadly construed
● morally valued—is valued in its own right and not
as a means to an end
● does not diminish others—elevates others who wit-
ness it, producing admiration, not jealousy
● nonfelicitous opposite—has obvious antonyms that
● traitlike—is an individual difference with demon-
strable generality and stability
● measurable—has been successfully measured by
researchers as an individual difference
● distinctiveness—is not redundant (conceptually or
empirically) with other character strengths
● paragons—is strikingly embodied in some
● prodigies—is precociously shown by some children
● selective absence—is missing altogether in some
● institutions—is the deliberate target of societal prac-
tices and rituals that try to cultivate it
Table 1 lays out the classification, which includes 24
strengths of character. Although we avoid a claim of uni-
versality, a claim of ubiquity seems warranted by the
evidence presented below.
Each chapter in the CSV describes what is known and
what is not known about each of the included strengths:
paradigm cases, consensual definition, historical and cross-
cultural background, measurement, correlations and conse-
quences of having or lacking the strength, development,
enabling and disabling conditions, gender differences, and
interventions that build the strength. We intend this volume
to be a framework for conducting future research and
creating new interventions.
Three surprising empirical findings have already
emerged, First, we have discovered a remarkable similarity
in the relative endorsement of the 24 character strengths by
adults around the world and within the United States (Park,
Peterson, & Seligman, 2005a). The most commonly en-
dorsed (“most like me”) strengths, in 40 different countries,
from Azerbaijan to Venezuela, are kindness, fairness, au-
thenticity, gratitude, and open-mindedness, and the lesser
strengths consistently include prudence, modesty, and self-
regulation. The correlations of the rankings from nation to
nation are very strong, ranging in the .80s, and defy cul-
tural, ethnic, and religious differences. The same ranking of
greater versus lesser strengths characterizes all 50 U.S.
states—except for religiousness, which is somewhat more
evident in the South—and holds across gender, age, red
versus blue states, and education. Our results may reveal
Martin E. P.
411July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
something about universal human nature and/or the char-
acter requirements minimally needed for a viable society
(cf. Bok, 1995).
Second, a comparison of the strengths profiles of U.S.
adults and U.S. adolescents revealed overall agreement on
ranking yet a noticeably lower agreement than that found
between U.S. adults and adults in any other nation we have
studied (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005b). Hope, team-
work, and zest were more common among U.S. youths than
U.S. adults, whereas appreciation of beauty, authenticity,
leadership, and open-mindedness were more common
among adults. As we turn our attention to the deliberate
cultivation of character strengths, we should be as con-
cerned with how to keep certain strengths from eroding on
the journey to adulthood as we are with how to build others
from scratch (Park & Peterson, in press-b).
Third, although part of the definition of a character
strength is that it contributes to fulfillment, strengths “of
the heart”—zest, gratitude, hope, and love—are more ro-
bustly associated with life satisfaction than are the more
cerebral strengths such as curiosity and love of learning
(Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). We find this pattern
among adults and among youths as well as longitudinal
evidence that these “heart” strengths foreshadow subse-
quent life satisfaction (Park et al., 2005b). One more find-
ing to note: Self-regulation among parents, although not
Classification of 6 Virtues and 24 Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004)
Virtue and strength Definition
1. Wisdom and knowledge
Love of learning
Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
Being able to provide wise counsel to others
Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals
in the face of opposition, external or internal
Speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
Finishing what one starts
Approaching life with excitement and energy
Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others
Doing favors and good deeds for others
Valuing close relations with others
Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
Working well as member of a group or team
Strengths that protect against excess
Forgiving those who have done wrong
Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
Being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might
later be regretted
Regulating what one feels and does
Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide
Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled
performance in all domains of life
Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
Expecting the best and working to achieve it
Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life
Appreciation of beauty and excellence
412July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
strongly associated with parental life satisfaction, is posi-
tively linked to the life satisfaction of their children (Park
& Peterson, in press-a).
Meetings, Centers, and Courses
Well-attended scholarly meetings on positive psychology
occur regularly. For example, in October 2004, over 390
positive psychologists from 23 countries attended the Third
Annual International Positive Psychology Summit in
Washington, DC. The European Network of Positive Psy-
chology sponsored its second conference in July 2004 in
Italy, which was attended by 300 people from all over the
world. Young researchers apply to attend the annual sum-
mer Positive Psychology Institute, a week-long program in
which researchers at an early stage in their careers ex-
change ideas and receive guidance from more senior fig-
ures in positive psychology. From May 15 to June 30 of
2005, 2006, and 2007, Medici II will be held at the Uni-
versity of Pennsylvania; there, dozens of scientists and
scholars will gather to work together on five projects: (a)
productivity and health as a function of happiness; (b)
national well-being indices; (c) spirituality and successful
aging; (d) psychological capital; and (e) positive psychol-
ogy Web sites in Chinese and Spanish and ultimately for all
major language groups.
The Positive Psychology Network funds more than 50
research groups involving more than 150 scientists from
universities all over the world. The first Positive Psychol-
ogy Centers (at the University of Pennsylvania, the Uni-
versity of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Clar-
emont Graduate University) now exist.
Positive psychology courses at both the undergraduate
and graduate levels are now offered at several dozen U.S.
universities and in Europe, exposing students to the idea
that it makes sense to study what is right about people in
addition to what is wrong. Martin Seligman and Ben Dean
offered a 48-hour telephone course, Authentic Happiness
Coaching, on the principles, tests, and interventions in
positive psychology. More than 1,000 people participated,
including clinical and counseling psychologists, coaches,
educators, psychiatrists, physicians, and personnel manag-
ers. The first master’s degree will be offered by the Uni-
versity of Pennsylvania, a Master of Applied Positive Psy-
chology, starting in September 2005. Within one month of
announcing the existence of the degree, over 200 applica-
tions were filed.
Widespread dissemination of positive psychology re-
search means that the general psychological community is
beginning to understand that respectable science can be
conducted on the positive side of life. Web sites devoted to
positive psychology are burgeoning, and some of the most
popular include www.apa.org/science/positivepsy.html,
.com, and www.positivepsychology.org/. A positive psy-
chology listserv can be joined at www.positivepsychology
.org/pospsy.htm#PP%20Listserve. There has been strong
media interest in positive psychology, with hundreds of
newspaper and magazine articles appearing all over the
world. Time Magazine devoted its cover and almost its
entire January 17, 2005 issue to the scientific advances and
practice implications of the field.
Funders have been generous. Atlantic Philanthropies,
the Annenberg Foundation, Sunnylands Trust, the Mayer-
son Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the Hovey
Foundation, the Gallup Foundation, the U.S. Department of
Education, and others have made substantial grants to
support the scientific research and the dissemination of the
We focus the rest of this article on the efficacy of psycho-
logical interventions to increase individual happiness, in
many ways the bottom line of work in positive psychology.
First, a caveat about the word happiness itself: We work
under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically
unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving
the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes
to “happiness” (Seligman, 2002): (a) positive emotion and
pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged
life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent
research suggests that people reliably differ according to
the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most
satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward
all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement
and meaning (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005b). We
continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheo-
retical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive
psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emo-
tion, engagement, and meaning.
One nonobvious reason to be interested in interven-
tions that build happiness is that happiness is not an epi-
phenomenon. An important fact that has emerged in the last
few years is that happiness is causal and brings many more
413 July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
benefits than just feeling good. Happy people are healthier,
more successful, and more socially engaged, and the causal
direction runs both ways (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, in
press). We look forward to continued research on the
correlates and consequences of happiness. The causal effi-
cacy of happiness has focused our research group on one
practical matter: interventions that build happiness.
Can Positive Psychology Make
People Lastingly Happier?
From the Buddha, through the human potential movement
of the 1960s, through the pioneering work of Michael
Fordyce (1977, 1983), through the self-improvement in-
dustry of the 1990s, at least 100 “interventions” claiming to
increase happiness lastingly have been proposed. We have
collected these and have distilled about 40 of them into a
form that is replicable and capable of being presented in a
manual. Which of these interventions really work, and
which are at best placebos?
A royal road of a method for answering questions like
these with respect to medication or psychotherapy already
exists—the random-assignment, placebo-controlled design
(RCT, or randomized controlled trial)—and the very same
method can be used to validate what, if anything, builds the
positive side of life. We began our work in this area by
teaching these exercises first to students in undergraduate and
graduate courses and then to a wide variety of mental health
professionals in a telephone course. We saw so many power-
ful case studies (in which the testimonial word life-changing
kept appearing spontaneously) that we were inspired to try out
the interventions in them in RCTs and determine if they
worked when subjected to rigorous testing.
We also considered the possibility that there would be
no exercises that would make people lastingly happier.
Research into the hedonic treadmill, adaptation, and the
heritability of positive affectivity has implied that people
adapt rapidly to positive changes in their world and soon
return to their baseline levels of happiness (Brickman &
Campbell, 1971; Kahneman, 1999; Lykken & Tellegen,
1996). But because of the power of the case history
anecdotes we encountered, we decided to persist and to put
the interventions to the random-assignment, placebo-con-
We now detail the efficacy of five exercises that we
have so far put to this test. First, we address two method-
ological issues: (a) how we measured happiness and de-
pression and (b) how we delivered the intervention and
collected outcome data via the Internet.
Measuring Happiness and Depression
Measuring depression was straightforward. We used the
Center for Epidemiological Studies–Depression Scale
(CES-D) symptom survey (Radloff, 1977). After surveying
existing measurements of happiness, however, we could
find no parallel symptom survey of all three forms of
happiness (positive emotion, engagement, and meaning).
There exist useful measures of general happiness (e.g.,
Fordyce, 1977; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999), but these
do not allow researchers to make finer distinctions in levels
of happiness, especially at the upper end of the scale;
scores are skewed and thereby impose a low ceiling. Nor
do these measures include all of the “symptoms” of the
pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.
In order to capture the week-by-week upward changes in
happiness that we thought might occur following our happi-
ness interventions, we created a new measure, the Steen
Happiness Index (SHI). We used as our explicit model the
Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck, Ward, Mendelson,
Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961). Just as the BDI is sensitive to
changes in depressive symptoms, we created the SHI to be
sensitive to changes, particularly upward changes, in happi-
ness levels. The SHI contains 20 items and requires partici-
pants to read a series of statements and pick the one from each
SHI reflect the three kinds of happy lives (the pleasant life, the
engaged life, and the meaningful life): experiencing and sa-
voring pleasures, losing the self in engaging activities, and
participating in meaningful activities. Response choices range
from a negative (1) to an extreme positive (5), as in the
A. Most of the time I am bored. (1)
B. Most of the time I am neither bored nor interested in what I am
C. Most of the time I am interested in what I am doing. (3)
D. Most of the time I am quite interested in what I am doing. (4)
E. Most of the time I am fascinated by what I am doing. (5)
Pilot work with several hundred adult respondents
showed that scores on this measure converged substantially
with scores on other measures of happiness (r ? .79 with
Lyubomirsky & Lepper’s  General Happiness Scale,
and r ? .74 with Fordyce’s  Happiness Scale), as
would be expected, but that they were, as we hoped, more
414 July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
bell-shaped. Furthermore, changes in SHI scores across a
one-week period were sensitive to the self-reported occur-
rence of positive and negative events, even when prior SHI
scores were controlled.
We used the Internet to recruit participants, to deliver the
intervention, and to collect our data (Prochaska, Di-
Clemente, Velicer, & Rossi, 1993). At this stage in our
intervention research, this convenience sample served our
purposes well, because on average we have 300 new regis-
trants every day to our Web site (www.authentichappiness
.org), which contains many of the positive questionnaires
for free. But we also believe that this sample may be at
least equal to, and perhaps superior to, college sophomores
or clinic volunteers in its scientific justification. One small
advantage of collecting data via the Internet is that it
obviates data entry by the researcher (and associated hu-
man error). One larger advantage is substantial cost-effec-
tiveness in large-sample studies. After one pays for Web
site development and maintenance, there are virtually no
additional costs to data collection for adequately powered
studies, and we have offered the use of our Web site to
Much more scientifically important, and controversial,
is the possibility of biased sampling. Gosling, Vazire, Sriv-
astava, and John (2004) compared survey data collected via
the Internet with survey data collected via traditional meth-
ods. They concluded that (a) Internet data are just as
diverse as data collected via traditional methods, (b) par-
ticipants who voluntarily participate in Web-based studies
are no more psychologically disturbed than traditional par-
ticipants, and (c) participants in Internet studies are no less
likely to take the study seriously or to provide accurate
information than are participants in traditional samples. We
believe our sample is biased but in a relevant direction. It
is tilted toward those who want to become happier, pre-
cisely those who are the ultimate target of our interven-
tions. We would not want to generalize our findings to
people who do not want to become happier or to people
who have to be coerced into taking psychological tests. On
the basis of these considerations, we chose to use the
For our first large RCT, we designed five happiness exer-
cises and one placebo control exercise. Each exercise was
delivered via the Internet and could be completed within
one week. One of these exercises focused on building
gratitude, two focused on increasing awareness of what is
most positive about oneself, and two focused on identifying
strengths of character. In a randomized, placebo-controlled
study, we compared the effects of these exercises with
those of what we thought would be a plausible placebo
control: journaling for one week about early memories. We
followed our participants for six months, periodically mea-
suring symptoms of both depression and happiness.
We recruited a convenience sample from among vis-
itors to the Web site created for Seligman’s (2002) book
Authentic Happiness by creating a link called “Happiness
Exercises.” The study was described on the site as an
opportunity to help test new exercises designed to increase
happiness. Over the course of approximately one month,
we recruited 577 adult participants, 42% male and 58%
female. Almost two thirds of the participants (64%) were
between the ages of 35 and 54 years. Of the participants
surveyed, 39% had a degree from a four-year college, and
27% had some graduate school education. Notably, only
4% of the participants did not have education or vocational
training after high school, another limit on the generaliz-
ability of our findings. Consistent with their reported levels
of education, approximately three fourths of the partici-
pants classified their income levels as “average” or above.
The sample was largely White (77%).
Visitors to the site were told that the exercise they
were to receive was not guaranteed to make them happier
and that they might receive an inert (placebo) exercise. We
did not offer any initial financial incentives for doing the
exercises. In order to ensure good follow-up, we did tell
participants, however, that upon completion of follow-up
tests at one week, one month, three months, and six months
after completing the exercise, they would be entered into a
lottery. The lottery prizes included one $500 award and
three $100 awards.
After participants agreed to the terms presented, they
answered a series of basic demographic questions and
completed two questionnaires, the SHI and the CES-D, as
already described. Then participants received a randomly
assigned exercise. Participants were encouraged to print
out or write down the instructions for their exercise and to
keep them accessible during the week to come. They were
instructed to return to the Web site to complete follow-up
questionnaires after completing their assigned exercise.
415 July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
Participants received reminder e-mails. The first
reminder, sent early in the week, repeated the instruc-
tions for their assigned exercise. They were also given
contact information and encouraged to contact the re-
searchers with any questions or concerns. The second
reminder e-mail, sent later in the week, reminded par-
ticipants to return to the Web site for the follow-up
questionnaires: “Thank you again for participating in our
study. Please remember to return to [url] by [relevant
date] to give us feedback about your exercise and to
complete follow-up questionnaires.”
When participants returned to the Web site after per-
forming their exercise, they completed the same measures
of happiness and depression administered at pretest. In
addition, participants answered a manipulation check ques-
tion to assess whether they had in fact completed the
exercise as instructed during the relevant time period
(scored yes or no).
Of the 577 participants who completed baseline ques-
tionnaires, 411 (71%) completed all five follow-up assess-
from those who remained on their baseline happiness or
depression scores, nor was there differential dropout from the
six exercises. We include in our analyses only those partici-
pants who completed all follow-up questionnaires.1
Detailed descriptions of the exercises are available
from us upon request. However, the following paragraphs
present overviews of each:
Placebo control exercise: Early memories.
Participants were asked to write about their early memories
every night for one week.
Participants were given one
week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person
to someone who had been especially kind to them but had
never been properly thanked.
Three good things in life.
asked to write down three things that went well each day and
their causes every night for one week. In addition, they were
asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.
You at your best.
write about a time when they were at their best and then to
reflect on the personal strengths displayed in the story.
They were told to review their story once every day for a
week and to reflect on the strengths they had identified.
Using signature strengths in a new way.
Participants were asked to take our inventory of character
strengths online at www.authentichappiness.org and to re-
ceive individualized feedback about their top five (“signa-
ture”) strengths (Peterson et al., 2005a). They were then
asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and
different way every day for one week.
Identifying signature strengths.
cise was a truncated version of the one just described,
without the instruction to use signature strengths in new
ways. Participants were asked to take the survey, to note
their five highest strengths, and to use them more often
during the next week.
Participants were asked to
Results of the Interventions
Two of the exercises—using signature strengths in a new
way and three good things—increased happiness and de-
creased depressive symptoms for six months. Another ex-
ercise, the gratitude visit, caused large positive changes for
one month. The two other exercises and the placebo control
created positive but transient effects on happiness and
depressive symptoms. Not surprisingly, the degree to
which participants actively continued their assigned exer-
cise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week
period mediated the long-term benefits.
Here are more details. Using analyses of variance
(ANOVAs) followed by planned contrasts, we compared
the scores of participants across the following time points:
pretest, immediate posttest (after doing their exercise for
one week), one week after the posttest, one month after the
posttest, three months after the posttest, and six months
after the posttest. Figures 1 and 2 show the happiness and
depression scores of participants by assigned exercise.
Sample sizes for each condition are shown in these figures
as well as effect sizes associated with statistically signifi-
cant (p ? .05) contrasts for the intervention group between
baseline scores and those at the different follow-ups.2
An overall ANOVA for happiness scores (six condi-
tions ? six time periods) showed significant effects for
time, F(5, 2025) ? 26.38, p ? .001, and for the Condi-
tion ? Time interaction, F(25, 2025) ? 12.38, p ? .001.
Similar effects were found for depression scores: a signif-
icant effect for time, F(5, 2025) ? 39.77, p ? .001, and a
significant Condition ? Time interaction, F(25, 2025) ?
5.21, p ? .001.
Participants in all conditions (including the placebo con-
trol condition) tended to be happier and less depressed at the
immediate posttest (after doing their exercise for one week;
see Figures 1 and 2). One week later and at every testing
1Older people were happier (r ? .18, p ? .001) and less depressed (r ?
?.17, p ? .001). Gender and ethnicity were not associated with happiness
or depression scores at baseline or at any of the follow-up assessments. In
our analyses, we initially controlled for age, but the results were unaf-
fected, so we present only the unadjusted means.
2A closer look with ANOVAs at the individual interventions compared
with the placebo condition revealed the following effects. With respect to
happiness, there were main effects of time for gratitude visit, F(5, 750) ?
39.13, p ? .001, three good things, F(5, 645) ? 8.76, p ? .001, you at
your best, F(5, 690) ? 26.77, p ? .001, using signature strengths in a new
way, F(5, 680) ? 8.56, p ? .001, and identifying signature strengths, F(5,
690) ? 24.94, p ? .001, and there was a Condition ? Time interaction for
gratitude visit, F(5, 750) ? 6.88, p ? .001, three good things, F(5, 645) ?
16.47, p ? .001, and using signature strengths in a new way, F(5, 680) ?
17.91, p ? .001, but not for you at your best, F(5, 690) ? 1.75, ns, or
identifying signature strengths, F(5, 690) ? 0.35, ns. With respect to
depressive symptoms, there were main effects of time for gratitude visit,
F(5, 750) ? 20.91, p ? .001, three good things, F(5, 645) ? 14.43, p ?
.001, you at your best, F(5, 690) ? 10.37, p ? .001, using signature
strengths in a new way, F(5, 680) ? 13.35, p ? .001, and identifying
signature strengths, F(5, 690) ? 6.59, p ? .001, and there was a Condi-
tion ? Time interaction for gratitude visit, F(5, 750) ? 4.62, p ? .001,
three good things, F(5, 645) ? 5.15, p ? .001, you at your best, F(5,
690) ? 2.83, p ? .02, and using signature strengths in a new way, F(5,
680) ? 4.56, p ? .001, but not for identifying signature strengths, F(5,
690) ? 0.20, ns.
416July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
period thereafter, however, participants in the placebo control
condition were no different than they had been at baseline.
As Figures 1 and 2 show, at the immediate posttest
(after one week of doing the assigned exercise), partici-
pants in the gratitude visit condition were happier and less
depressed. In fact, participants in the gratitude visit condi-
tion showed the largest positive changes in the whole
study. This boost in happiness and decrease in depressive
Steen Happiness Index Scores
no effect size is shown, the intervention group and the comparison group did not differ.
Figures are effect sizes corresponding to a statistically significant (p ? .05) difference between the intervention group at that point in time and baseline. If
417July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
symptoms were maintained at follow-up assessments one
week and one month later. But by three months, partici-
pants in the gratitude visit condition were no happier or less
depressed than they had been at baseline.
Participants in the three good things exercise began to
show beneficial effects one month following the posttest.
At the one-month follow-up, participants in this exercise
were happier and less depressed than they had been at
Center for Epidemiological Studies–Depression Scale Scores
no effect size is shown, the intervention group and the comparison group did not differ.
Figures are effect sizes corresponding to a statistically significant (p ? .05) difference between the intervention group at that point in time and baseline. If
418July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
baseline, and they stayed happier and less depressed at the
three-month and six-month follow-ups.
A similar long-term improvement occurred for partic-
ipants in the using signature strengths in a new way con-
dition. Immediate effects were less pronounced than for the
three good things condition, but at the one-month fol-
low-up and beyond, participants in this condition were
happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline.
In contrast, participants in the truncated identifying signa-
ture strengths condition showed an effect only at the im-
mediate posttest but not thereafter. Likewise, participants
in the you at your best condition showed an effect only at
the immediate posttest.
What caused the long-term benefits? Regardless of
their assigned exercise, participants were asked explicitly
to perform it for only one week. When we contacted
participants for one-week, one-month, three-month, and
six-month follow-ups, we asked them whether they had
indeed continued the exercise for more than one week on
their own. We hypothesized that continued practice of an
intervention would mediate positive outcomes at follow-
up. To test this hypothesis, we conducted ANOVAs with
reported adherence to the exercise and continuing the ex-
ercise as the independent variables and with the happiness
score as the dependent variable. We performed analogous
ANOVAs with the depression (CES-D) score as the depen-
The results were straightforward. There was a signif-
icant effect for adherence to the exercise on happiness
scores at all time periods and a significant effect for adher-
ence to the exercise on depression scores at the 1-month
follow-up. The interaction between continuing the exercise
and adherence to the exercise was significant for happiness
scores, indicating that participants who continued the ex-
ercises were the happiest. This interaction was also signif-
icant when the CES-D score was the dependent variable,
indicating—again—that the long-term effects of the effec-
tive exercises (see Figure 2) were most pronounced for
those who continued the exercises on their own.
The Future of Positive Interventions
We found specific interventions that make people lastingly
happier, and we believe this study holds implications—
small and large—for the future of positive interventions
and perhaps for clinical interventions. We operationalized
and compared five happiness interventions to a placebo
control in a sizable random-assignment experiment, and
found that two interventions—writing about three good
things that happened each day and why they happened, and
using signature strengths of character in a new way—made
people happier (and less depressed) up to six months later.
One other intervention—the gratitude visit—produced
large positive changes but only for one month. Six months
is far from “happily ever after,” but our results suggest that
lasting increased happiness might be possible even outside
fairy tales. Effect sizes were “moderate” or larger, which is
at odds with the widespread belief that the pursuit of
happiness is futile because of inevitable adaptation or an
immutable hedonic set point.
Participants in our study were asked to perform their
assigned exercise for one week and then to return to the
Web site periodically for follow-up assessments. Regard-
less of their assigned exercise, participants—even those in
the control group—were on average happier and less de-
pressed at the immediate posttest. This pattern highlights
the crucial importance of a longitudinal, placebo-controlled
design in research of this nature, particularly with partici-
pants who expect to be made happier. As these studies
continue and more exercises are explored, more and more
inert exercises will be found, and these inert exercises can
serve as placebo controls even though they were intended
as active enhancers of well-being. Parametric variation can
also serve the control group function, yielding “dose–
response” curves for increasing intensity or duration of the
Pioneers in this field (e.g., Fordyce, 1977, 1983) found
that happiness levels could be increased by “shotgun”
interventions involving multiple exercises. Identifying spe-
cific ingredients is an uncommon early move in the testing
of interventions, and our studies go beyond such demon-
strations, although further work is of course needed to
identify the fine detail of how our interventions worked.
We also recommend the random-assignment placebo con-
trol. It may be that the mere act of doing something
assigned by a professional in the expectation of gain in the
form of a boost in happiness is sufficient to lift one’s spirits
in the short term (Frank, 1973). This may be particularly
true of our sample, composed as it is of people who want
to become happier, who are invested in the outcome, and
who think www.authentichappiness.org is a plausible au-
thority. Baseline CES-D scores indicated that our partici-
pants were, on average, mildly depressed. Our participants
were probably motivated to try things to feel better, and
most did—at least temporarily. Hence the importance of
By one week following the intervention, participants
in the placebo control group (the early memories exercise)
had returned to their baseline levels of happiness and
depression symptoms, and there they remained through the
6-month follow-up. Those participants who were asked to
write a story about themselves at their best—the you at
your best exercise—demonstrated the same pattern as the
placebo participants: an immediate boost in happiness after
a week of doing the exercise and an immediate reduction in
depressive symptoms as well, with neither effect lasting
beyond the posttest. Therefore, we conclude that this ex-
ercise is not an effective intervention, at least not in
We add “in isolation” because in our multiexercise
programs (which have not yet been subjected to an RCT),
we use this exercise to introduce the signature strengths
interventions, and it is possible that telling an introductory
story about one’s highest strengths, followed by the effec-
tive signature strength exercise, may amplify the benefits
on happiness and depression. It seems plausible—given
that three of the interventions were effective when deliv-
ered alone—to suppose that a package of positive interven-
tions, perhaps including ones that were ineffective in iso-
419July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
lation, might well exceed the beneficial effects of any
single exercise. Such packages—likely containing some
moves that are truly inert, some moves that are inert in
isolation but effective in a package, and some moves that
are always active—are what any therapy consists of. We
have designed and are testing such packages.
Further, these single exercises were delivered with
“no human hands,” that is, electronically on a Web site.
Discussions of therapeutic effects often emphasize the
power of the relationship with the therapist; only when that
relationship is in place do specific interventions work. The
finding of beneficial effects with no human therapeutic
alliance suggests the operation of powerful specific ingre-
dients in the exercises. We believe that in the hands of a
skilled clinician or coach, even more beneficial effects
might occur. Our ongoing studies of packages of exercises
delivered with human hands find large effect sizes for
relieving depression and increasing happiness, in contrast
to the mostly moderate effect sizes reported here.
We asked participants to do their assigned exercise for
only one week. We did not suggest that they should keep it
up thereafter. In retrospect, we believe that one week may
not be enough time for participants in the using signature
strengths in a new way condition and the three good things
condition to develop sufficient skills and experience. Yet
participants in both of these conditions proceeded to benefit
from these exercises up to six months later. We found that
the participants who continued to benefit from the exercises
were those people who spontaneously did them beyond the
required one-week period, without our instruction to do so.
We believe that these two interventions involve skills that
improve with practice, that are fun, and that thus are
self-maintaining. Unlike many therapeutic outcomes, such
as weight loss from dieting, these exercises are self-rein-
forcing. The majority of participants in these conditions
answered “yes” to a question about whether they were
continuing the exercise on their own.
As we continue to develop and test exercises, we will
pay particular attention to the ease with which the exercise
can be integrated into an individual’s daily schedule and to
the processes of self-maintenance. It may not be practical
for individuals to schedule a formal gratitude visit on a
regular basis, but most people can make time every day to
express their appreciation for someone—elaborately and
sincerely. In any package of positive interventions, it may
be optimal to intersperse exercises that make an immediate
impact (e.g., the gratitude visit) with those exercises that
are easily integrated into the daily routine.
An important question left unanswered by the current
study is whether more is better when it comes to happiness
interventions. Given that the using signature strengths in a
new way exercise, the three good things exercise, and the
gratitude visit exercise were all effective, does it make
sense to assign them all to a person who wishes to be
happier? And if so, is there an optimal sequence? Is there
a personality type for whom some exercises “take” and
others do not? We are currently testing the number of
exercises both parametrically and in different sequences in
an attempt to bolster their effects on happiness and
Measurement of positive states needs more research.
Many happiness researchers subscribe to the notion that
happiness is necessarily subjective and is essentially what-
ever the individual defines it to be (e.g., Lyubomirsky,
Sheldon, & Schkade, in press). If happiness is in the eye of
the beholder, then self-report measures are the only appro-
priate measures. We do not think that this approach is solid
enough: Even though individuals may be the best judge of
how happy they are at the moment, they may not be
accurate historians with respect to when and in what types
of situations they were happy in the past. One challenge for
researchers is to develop better behavior-based, domain-
specific assessment tools. We suspect that productivity at
work and physical health follow the same patterns as sub-
jective happiness, and we will welcome the day when
objective productivity and health measures supplement
subjective happiness measures.
Although our study is the most ambitious random-
assignment, placebo-controlled test of happiness interven-
tions we know, our interventions were documented only on
a convenience sample. This population was largely well-
educated, White, and financially comfortable. Furthermore,
they were mildly depressed and motivated to become hap-
pier. Future research on the efficacy of these exercises for
individuals who are either much happier or much more
depressed than our current population and who come from
other backgrounds may uncover limits on the generality of
positive interventions. We are currently asking this ques-
tion in collaboration with disability counselors whose pri-
mary task is to help individuals with disabilities achieve
high-quality employment and a high quality of life.
We cannot resist the speculation that happiness exer-
cises may prove therapeutic in depressive disorders. It is
important to note that these interventions also reduced
depressive symptoms lastingly, and in other studies we are
finding that this effect is massive. Typically in the thera-
peutic endeavor, we tackle disorders head-on: We teach
anxious people to relax, depressed people to argue against
depressing thoughts, people with conflict to gain insight
into the sources of conflict, and people with obsessive–
compulsive disorders to find out that disasters do not ensue
if they do not perform their rituals. In fact, an unspoken
premise of all talk therapy is that it is beneficial to talk
about one’s troubles and to overcome them by confronting
them. We see positive interventions as a supplement to
therapy focused on troubles, another arrow in the quiver of
the therapist. Psychotherapy as defined now is where you
go to talk about your troubles and your weaknesses; per-
haps in the future it will also be where you go to build your
strengths. Perhaps on the 10th anniversary of the millennial
issue of the American Psychologist, we will be able to
review such developments.
At least since the time of Aristotle, scholars, philoso-
phers, and religious leaders have pondered the question
“How can we become lastingly happier?” Yet until re-
cently, the only guiding question in clinical psychology and
psychiatry has been “How can we reduce suffering?” We
420July–August 2005 ● American Psychologist
believe that psychology and psychiatry have found some
answers to the suffering question and that this is a fine
beginning. But even if this question is answered fully, the
mission of psychology should not end there. Few people
are wholly content just with being less depressed and less
anxious and less angry. Psychotherapy has long been where
you go to talk about your troubles, a strangely untested
assumption. We suggest that psychotherapy of the future
may also be where you go to talk about your strengths.
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