Tag Archives: Research

What the Research Says* about Happiness Classes

I was just now finishing up the Moodle (not Poodle) shell for my upcoming Happiness class. While working, I noticed one more person added into the course. . . so there’s still time . . . and I know some of you have been thinking about it.

Whether you take my class or not, you should consider some form of a happiness intervention with yourself. I’m not saying that because I promote toxic positivity. Instead, although I think we should all explore our pain and deepen our understanding of ourselves, we also need tools that will help us feel better on a daily basis and more tools to help us make sure we’re pointed in a direction likely to create meaningful lives.

This leads me to some highlights from happiness class research.

  1. In a small study of 23 undergraduates in a traditional, face-to-face psychology course format, “students reported gains in hope, self-actualization, well-being, agency, and pathway hopefulness, purpose, and mission in life” (Maybury, 2013, p. 62). Note: there was no control group in this study.
  • In a small study of 18 undergraduates (and 20 control participants who took a social psychology course) in traditional, face-to-face psychology course formats, “the positive psychology students reported higher overall happiness, life satisfaction, routes to happiness, and lower depressive symptoms and stress compared to students in the control course” (Goodmon et al., 2016, p. 232)
  • In a series of three studies conducted during a COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K., the researchers reported (a) undergraduates in a happiness course had higher mental well-being than a waiting list control; (b) during lockdown, the happiness course did not have significantly positive effects, but participants seemed somewhat buffered from negative effects because they had higher subjective well-being than a control group; (c) a short (4 week), online version of the course used with “university staff and students produced significant benefits across a range of mental and personal well-being measures” (Hood et al., 2021, p. 11). Note: there was no control group in the third study.
  • In a series of three large studies (n = 500+ for each) of massive open online courses (MOOCs), adult students reported significantly higher subjective well-being than students in an alternative introductory psychology MOOC (Yaden et al., 2021).

We’ve now—at the University of Montana—have collected data on three of our own happiness interventions (one 2.5-hour workshop and two full-semester courses). We have, or will soon, submit these for publication. Our outcomes included:

Study 1 (a 2.5-hour happiness workshop): We had an immediate statistically significant effect on depression symptoms in our workshop group (n = 28) as compared to the waiting list control group (n = 17). At six-months follow-up, over 60% of the workshop participants reported they were still feeling the benefits from the workshop.  

Study 2 (Spring 2020 class; half face-to-face and half online, due to COVID-19): We had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 38) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 41). Positive outcomes included: (a) greater perceived friendship support, (b) greater hope, (c) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (d) better total health, including better sleep and fewer headaches, and (e) slightly improved mindfulness.  

Study 3 (Spring 2021 class; all online): Again, we had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 36) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 34). This time, the positive outcomes included: (a) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (b) higher positive emotions, (c) increased hope on both agency and pathways subscales, as well as total hope, and (d) slight increases in perceived friendship support. Unfortunately, we forgot to include the physical health questionnaire.

To summarize, as you can see, happiness classes can have positive effects and that’s why you should still be thinking about enrolling in our happiness course; it begins this coming Tuesday! Click here for enrollment info: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2021/12/29/the-art-science-of-happiness-3-0-with-jsf-is-coming-soon-you-can-sign-up-now/

*In closing, I should mention that I used anthropomorphizing language in this blog’s title. Rest assured, I realize that “research” as a non-sentient activity, is unable to speak, and so if I were to be perfectly honest, I’d say something like “Research says nothing about happiness classes, because research cannot speak.” The reason for my wanton anthropomorphizing is that I’ve noticed this sort of linguistic error in many popular articles that get lots of attention. . . and obviously, I’m trying to attract attention here.

Research is Hard: Procrastination is Easy

Before and after a quick trip to NYC (see the photo), I’m teaching the research class in our Department of Counseling this year. This leads me to re-affirm a conclusion I reached long ago: Research is hard.

Research is hard for many reasons, not the least of which is that scientific language can look and feel opaque. If you don’t know the terminology, it’s easy to miss the point. Even worse, it’s easy to dismiss the point, just because the language feels different. I do that all the time. When I come upon terminology that I don’t recognize, one of my common responses is to be annoyed at the jargon and consequently dismiss the content. As my sister Peggy might have said, that’s like “throwing the baby out with the bathtub.”  

Teaching research to Master’s students who want to practice counseling and see research as a bothersome requirement is especially hard. It doesn’t help that my mastery of research design and statistics and qualitative methods is limited. Nevertheless, I’ve thrown myself into the teaching of research this semester; that’s a good thing, because it means I’m learning.

This week I shared a series of audio recordings of a woman bereaved by the suicide of her former husband. The content and affect in the recordings are incredible. Together, we all listened to the woman’s voice, intermittently cracking with pain and grief. We listened to each excerpt twice, pulling out meaning units and then building a theory around our observations and the content. More on the results from that in another blog.

During the class before, I got several volunteers, hypnotized them, and then used a single-case design to evaluate whether my hypnotic interventions improved or adversely affected their physical performance on a coin-tossing task. The results? Sort of and maybe. Before that, I gave them fake math quizzes (to evaluate math anxiety). I also used graphology and palmistry to conduct personality assessments and make behavioral and life predictions. I had written the names of four (out of 24 students) who would volunteer for the graphology and palmistry activities, placed them in an envelope, and got ¾ correct. Am I psychic? Nope. But I do know the basic rule of behavioral prediction: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Today is Friday, which means I don’t have many appointments, which means I’m working on some long overdue research reports. Two different happiness projects are burning a hole in my metaphorical research pocket. The first is a write-up of a short 2.5-hour happiness workshop on counseling students’ health and wellness. As it turns out, compared with the control group, students who completed the happiness workshop immediately and significantly had lower scores on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale (p = .006). Even better, after 6-months, up to 81% of the participants believed they were still experiencing benefits from the workshop on at least one outcome variable (i.e., mindfulness). The point of writing this up is to emphasize that even brief workshops on evidence-based happiness interventions can have lasting positive effects on graduate students in counseling.

Given that I’m on the cusp of writing up these workshop results, along with a second study of the outcomes of a semester-long happiness course, I’m stopping here so I can get back to work. Not surprisingly, as I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, research is hard; that means it’s much easier for me to write this blog than it is to force myself to do the work I need to do to get these studies published.

As my sister Peggy used to say, I need to stop procrastinating and “put my shoulder to the grindstone.”

Evidence-Based Relationship Factors in Counseling and Psychotherapy

The medical model of psychotherapy . . . has led us to accept a view of clients as inert and passive objects on whom we operate and whom we medicate. Gene V. Glass, in The Great Psychotherapy Debate, 2001, p. ix

John and Max Seattle

In a 1957 publication in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, Carl Rogers boldly declared:

  1. No psychotherapy techniques or methods are needed to achieve psychotherapeutic change.
  2. Diagnostic knowledge is “for the most part, a colossal waste of time” (1957, p. 102).

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what Rogers was saying.

**PAUSE HERE FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION**

If diagnosis is a waste of time and therapy techniques are unnecessary, then what can counselors or therapists do to produce positive outcomes? Here’s what Rogers said:

All that is necessary and sufficient for change to occur in psychotherapy is a certain type of relationship between psychotherapist and client.

Rogers’s revolutionary statements refocused counseling and psychotherapy. Until Rogers, therapy was primarily about theoretically based methods, techniques, and interventions. After Rogers, writers and practitioners began debating whether the relationship between client and therapist—not the methods and techniques employed—might be producing positive therapy outcomes.

This debate continues today. Wampold (2001) has called it “the great psychotherapy debate.” This debate has been boiled down to a dichotomy captured by the question: “Do treatments cure disorders or do relationships heal people?” (Norcross & Lambert, p. 3).

Keep in mind that like lots of things on planet Earth, the techniques vs. relationship debate promotes a false dichotomy. IMHO, most “rational” professionals understand that therapy relationships and techniques are BOTH important to positive outcomes. Seriously, how could it be otherwise?

But there is a positive outcome from this debate. Various researchers around the world started focusing on how to define specific relationship factors that contribute to counseling outcomes. Previously, these relationship factors were lumped into a category called “common factors.” Common factors were viewed as the main reason why all therapy approaches tend to produce approximately equal positive outcomes.

Flowing from research on common factors, one of the most fascinating and important movements in counseling and psychotherapy is now called, “Evidence-based relationships” (Norcross, 2011). As it turns out, there’s a large body of existing and accumulating research to help us clearly identify what’s relationally therapeutic.

In the attached link, you’ll find the powerpoint slides that Kim Parrow and I developed for a supervisor training yesterday, at the University of Montana. Our goal was to describe, demonstrate, and discuss 10 specific and observable relationship factors that contribute to positive counseling outcomes. We call them Evidence-Based Relationship Factors (EBRFs). They include:

  1. Congruence
  2. Unconditional positive regard
  3. Empathic understanding
  4. WA1: Emotional bond
  5. WA2: Goal consensus – Focus on strengths
  6. WA3: Task collaboration
  7. Rupture and repair
  8. Countertransference (management)
  9. Progress monitoring (feedback)
  10. Culture and Cultural Humility

The link at the bottom of this post will take you to our powerpoint slides. Also, for more information, you can always check out various theories textbooks, including Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice (from which this blog was adapted). https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Practice-Resource/dp/1119084202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504292029&sr=8-1&keywords=counseling+and+psychotherapy+theories+in+context+and+practice

EBRFs for Supervisors 2017 FIN

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

Do You Want to Participate in The March Madness Research Project?

Madness 2017

If your answer is yes . . . here’s what you should do and what will happen:

  1. Email: ummadness2017@gmail.com and say “Yes, I’m in”
  2. You will be randomly assigned to one of three “March Madness Bracket Training” groups:
    • Relaxation and focusing
    • Hypnosis to view the games from the future
    • Educational information
  3. You will receive an email telling you where to meet. All groups will meet on campus at the University of Montana in a specific room in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education building at 7pm on Tuesday evening, March 14.
  4. Show up at your designated room. When you arrive, you will fill out an informed consent form, a March Madness bracket, and complete a short questionnaire.
  5. Then you will participate in the training.
  6. After the training, you will complete another bracket
  7. You will leave your completed packet and your brackets with the researcher and it will be uploaded in to the ESPN Tournament Challenge website [we will need your email address to upload your selections into the ESPN system]
  8. You will receive information at the “Training” on how to login and track your bracket. If you lose or misplace this information, you can request an additional copy via email: ummadness2017@gmail.com

To sign up for this research project, email:

UMmadness2017@gmail.com