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On average, more people Google “How to be happy” than “How to get rich.” For some, the means of achieving happiness can seem as elusive as ever. But this might come as a surprise to readers of popular psychology—haven’t researchers put this mystery to bed?

Perhaps not. According to a new paper in Nature Human Behavior, media reports most often recommend five strategies for happiness: expressing gratitude, increasing social interaction, practicing mindfulness meditation, exercising, and spending time in nature. Over the past decade, journalists have repeated these recommendations so often that they have begun to sound almost like simple common sense. 

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But the media has relied on studies published before the field of psychology began to reckon with a so-called “replication crisis,” write the authors of the paper, Canadian psychologists Dunigan Folk and Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Around 2011, scientists began to notice that a majority of psychology studies could not successfully obtain the same results when repeated. Researchers in the field, it turned out, consistently relied on weak research methods, such as selective reporting of results, exclusion of certain participants, and small sample sizes—too few participants to yield statistically significant results.

Haven’t researchers put this mystery to bed?

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“It would be easy to assume there is a strong base of evidence for these [happiness] strategies,” write Folk and Dunn, “given the frequency with which they are recommended.” But while the five happiness tips may not qualify as snake oil, exactly, their benefits at this point are theoretical at best and their success with any one person may depend heavily on individual personality or preferences.

To assess the validity of the big five happiness strategies, Folk and Dunn identified 532 studies that experimentally investigated them with a non-clinical population. When they reviewed this batch of studies, they found that the vast majority used too few participants to yield reliable findings and failed to “pre-register” their studies—a research method that aims to improve data quality, prevent cherry-picking, and reduce publication bias, which is the publication of studies that fail to find an effect—among other things.

Below, insights from Folk and Dunn’s findings for each happiness strategy:

1. Gratitude: A few studies provide “reasonably solid evidence” that gratitude lists and letters can improve mood, at least temporarily.

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2. Social interaction: Two studies each provide compelling evidence that talking to strangers and acting more extraverted can boost mood, but this number is insufficient to make strong conclusions.

3. Mindfulness: Few rigorous studies and limited evidence support the idea that mindfulness interventions themselves enhance well-being. Samples sizes are small, results are mixed, and many of the studies failed to account for the potential benefits of social interaction integral to mindfulness interventions. (For instance, the standard mindfulness intervention involves group discussion.)

4. Exercise: The current literature provides little support for the idea that exercise promotes happiness. One study with sufficient sample size found long-term exercise could increase happiness, but five other studies found no benefits of exercise programs ranging in duration from 2 weeks to a year. 

5. Engagement with nature: Four studies with sufficient sample sizes demonstrate some happiness benefits of engaging with nature. But they may have been influenced by their own or by researchers’ expectations, and four studies is too small a body of literature to come to robust conclusions.

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Almost 95 percent of the experiments testing the happiness benefits of mindfulness, exercise, and engagement with nature, in particular, lacked big enough sample sizes to yield rigorous results. Gratitude and sociability fared a little better, but Folk and Dunn said a lack of pre-registered studies might also mean that studies that found no benefit simply were not published, they write.

Before the replication crisis, some 67 percent of psychology researchers reported engaging in research practices that could contribute to false positives, according to Folk and Dunn. To address the problem, scientists in the field have begun increasing the numbers of participants in their studies and pre-registering the studies. Maybe a newly rigorous approach to studying happiness will yield a set of strategies that can provide a real boost to our collective well-being. Or perhaps we will find that happiness is more immune to self-help than we would like to think. 

Lead image: pretty vectors / Shutterstock

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