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Can happiness exercises aid in the treatment of substance use disorder?

A recent study examined the effects of self-administered happiness exercises in individuals recovering from a substance use disorder.

In individuals who struggle with addictions, it seems that simply working on not using the substance may not be so effective. Recent studies have been focusing on increasing the overall well-being and happiness experienced by those with the addiction. It may be that changing the way a person feels about life and what they find rewarding, can also change their detrimental habits.

Positive psychology focuses on well-being and happiness

The field of study in psychology that focuses on the concept of well-being and happiness is positive psychology. While there have been many interventions developed to increase the happiness of individuals, few studies have looked at it in relation to addiction.

To determine the effects of certain exercises that can increase happiness in people with addictions, a team of researchers in the United States gathered a group of 531 adults with substance use disorder. The participants were divided into a control and a treatment group, with the treatment being exposure to one of five happiness exercises. The control group were assigned to either a neutral exercise or a negative exercise (3 bad things).

The happiness exercises were brief and completed by the participants online. As reported in an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, these are the exercises that were included:

  1. Three good things: Participants were asked to think back over the past day and determine three good things that they experienced in the past 24 hours.
  2. Experiencing kindness: Participants were asked about one act of kindness they had done in the past 24 hours, and an act of kindness they had seen someone else do in the past 24 hours.
  3. Savoring: Participants were asked to describe an experience that they have savored in the past 24 hours. “Savoured” in this case meant a positive experience that the participant have noticed and appreciated as being a wonderful moment. These experiences can be quite simple, everyday kind of moments. If they did not actively savor an experience in the past 24 hours, they were asked to describe an experience they will likely have in the next 24 hours that they could savor.”
  4. Rose, thorn, and bud: Participants were asked to think back on their day and describe the best thing they experienced (a rose), the worst thing they experienced (a thorn), and the thing they are most looking forward to in the next 24 hours (their bud).
  5. Reliving happy moments: Participants were asked to browse through the pictures saved on their smartphone, computer, or have lying around. They were asked to find one that brings back a happy memory and describe what is happening in the picture.

Exercises increased participants’ happiness in the moment

The results showed that all of the above exercises led to increases in the participants’ in-the-moment happiness. While the increases were fairly small, they were still significant. The most effective exercises were determined to be “Reliving Happy Moments”, “Rose, Thorn, Bud”, and “Savoring”, although the differences were small. In general, the exercises took a very short time to complete (3-4 minutes), and can thus be quite easily implemented as part of one’s day.

The participants in the study were, for the most part, female, white, and college-educated, which may impact how these results can be generalized to the greater population. The study also found that individuals with lower levels of happiness and who are in the early stages of recovery tended to not complete the exercises. This might be due to the fact that they were much less motivated to improve their state.

This study nevertheless is one of the only conducted with such a large sample. Even if the effects are small, the ease of incorporating such exercises can easily contribute, at least in part, to a recovery program.

Written by Maor Bernshtein

Reference: Hoeppner, B. B., Schick, M. R., Carlon, H., & Hoeppner, S. S. (2019). Do self-administered positive psychology exercises work in persons in recovery from problematic substance use? An online randomized survey. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 99, 16-23. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2019.01.006

Maor Bernshtein
Maor Bernshtein
Maor is currently working on his BSc in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is interested in psychological research and likes to analyze results and apply them to everyday life. Maor has previously volunteered for The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is passionate about bringing psychological knowledge back to the people. He hopes that others can benefit from psychological insights through his work and improve their overall life and well-being.


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