Practicing positive activities may be an effective and low-cost treatment for people suffering from depression, according to researchers.
Positive Activity Interventions (PAI) are intentional activities such as performing acts of kindness, practicing optimism, and counting one's blessings gleaned from decades of research into how happy and unhappy people are different.
This new approach has the potential to benefit depressed individuals who don't respond to pharmacotherapy or are not able or willing to obtain treatment, is less expensive to administer, is relatively less time-consuming and promises to yield rapid improvement of mood symptoms, holds little to no stigma, and carries no side effects.
The research team conducted a rigorous review of previous studies of PAIs, including randomized, controlled interventions with thousands of normal men and women as well as functional MRI scans in people with depressive symptoms.
"Over the last several decades, social psychology studies of flourishing individuals who are happy, optimistic and grateful have produced a lot of new information about the benefits of positive activity interventions on mood and well-being," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Laboratory at UC Riverside.
Lyubomirsky said that after she and Murali Doraiswamy, M.B.B.S., FRCP, of Duke University, exchanged notes, "the obvious question that popped up was whether we can tap into the PAI research base to design interventions to galvanize clinically depressed people to move past the point of simply not feeling depressed to the point of flourishing."
Although the paper found that positive activity interventions are effective in teaching individuals ways to increase their positive thinking, positive affect and positive behaviours, only two studies specifically tested these activities in individuals with mild depression.
The researchers' review of brain imaging studies also led them to theorize that PAIs may act to boost the dampened reward/pleasure circuit mechanisms and reverse apathy - a key benefit that does not usually arise from treatment with medication alone.
"The positive activities themselves aren't really new," said Kristin Layous, the paper's lead author.
"After all, humans have been counting their blessings, dreaming optimistically, writing thank you notes, and doing acts of kindness for thousands of years. What's new is the scientific rigor that researchers have applied to measuring benefits and understanding why they work," added Layous graduate students at UC Riverside.
The paper appears in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.