January 28, 2019
2 min read

Happiness exercises benefit people recovering from substance misuse

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Self-administered, test-based positive psychology exercises increased in-the-moment happiness in people recovering from problematic substance use, according to study findings.

Addiction research is increasingly focusing on reducing or eliminating substance use by encompassing quality of life in treatment, according to Bettina B. Hoeppner, PhD, from Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute and associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“Yet how to increase the attainment of positive experiences during treatment remains an understudied area,” Hoeppner told Healio Psychiatry. “A whole research area, called positive psychology, exists that is devoted to understanding and promoting human flourishing. This research, however, has remained silo’ed from addiction research, despite the fact that the field of addiction has undergone its own growth in a positive direction, embodied by the recovery movement.”

Researchers examined whether completing five brief, self-administrated happiness exercises resulted in increases in in-the-moment happiness compared with two control exercises among 531 adults recovering from problematic substance use. Using a randomized survey administered online, participants rated in-the-moment happiness immediately before and after completing the exercises.

Briefly, the five happiness exercises were:

  • 3 Good Things (modified) — participants described three good things that happened to them that day;
  • Savoring — participants described two experiences they savored that day;
  • Experiencing Kindness — participants described one act of kindness they performed and one they saw that day;
  • Reliving Happy Moments — participants browsed their own photos, selected one capturing a happy moment and wrote about it; and
  • Rose, Thorn, Bud — participants described the highlight of their day (rose), a challenge of the day (thorn) and something they looked forward to the next day (bud).

Participants randomized to receive happiness exercises experienced increases in in-the-moment happiness, while controls experienced decreases (P = .0017), according to the results.

“Effects were quite small, as was the intervention itself (3 to 4 min. to complete) but indicate that happiness is a malleable intervention target that could be addressed and improved during substance use care,” Hoeppner and colleagues wrote in the full study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

The researchers observed the greatest increases in happiness for the “Reliving Happy Moments” exercise (gav = 0.15), followed by “Savoring” (gav = 0.09) and “Rose, Thorn, Bud” (gav = 0.07). However, the modified “3 Good Things” exercises performed poorly (gav = 0.02) and the control exercise “3 Hard Things” led to a decrease in happiness (gav = –0.1). Overall, 93% of participants reported they could complete these exercises as part of their daily routine.

“The take-home message from our study is that yes indeed, these exercises work,” Hoeppner told Healio Psychiatry. “Our findings indicate that happiness is a malleable intervention target that could be addressed and improved during substance use care. How best to do so, remains an open question, and one we hope our findings stimulate research on.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.