The effectiveness of a web-based positive psychology intervention in enhancing college students’ mental well-being
Over my 55-year career as a researcher, professor, and social psychology journal editor, my main interest has always been in positive psychology, and in the capacity to enhance people’s psychological well-being. It has been rewarding to see the way psychology has shifted its axis to include a greater focus on positive emotions. The beginnings of this were originally termed “Third Force Psychology,” and this has evolved into Positive Psychology, with a range of newer interventions, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), and Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI). These have shown much promise in helping people to live more fulfilling and purpose-directed lives.
Currently, the world continues to face the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused unprecedented destruction of economic, medical, and educational systems, and a global death toll of more than 5.5 million, as of January 16, 2022. Lockdown policies have affected many. For example, although they may have continued their studies online, some university students have suffered severe mental consequences because of loneliness and social isolation.
The authors examined the effectiveness of a web-based Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) with 886 students, who either took part in PPI sessions, or received health reminders in the control group. Results showed that the PPS sessions (vs. regular health reminders) significantly improved students’ positive mood and mitigated negative emotions. The positive effect of the intervention remained consistent at both 3- and 6-month follow-ups.
In accordance with the positive psychology treatment developed by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), the web-based PPI incorporated two psychotherapeutic techniques: positive future imagination and gratitude-inducing thinking. (It should be noted that Professor Csikszentmihalyi, who was a member of our Board of Consulting Editors, recently passed away. An obituary for him appeared in Social Behavior and Personality; Stewart & Krivan, 2022).
The authors employed an abbreviated form of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Mackinnon et at., 1999) to assess the affective state of participants. It was found that the PPI group scored significantly higher than the control group on positive affect and significantly lower on negative affect when compared to the control group at all assessment phases. However, the authors were surprised to note that for both groups the negative affect score was significantly lower at the 6-month follow-up when compared with those at the baseline assessment and at the 3-month follow-up assessment. The authors consider that the longevity of the effectiveness of PPI that they found, also complies with the unique advances of the positive psychology approach, that is, the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
In sum, the authors suggest that, as the nations of the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to their vital and effective medical vaccination programs, they should have ways of helping their citizens address related psychological stress issues. They see the Positive Psychology approach as representing a type of “cognitive vaccine” (Holmes et al., 2009) for treating these psychological challenges. They write, “As researchers in this dark period in human history, we feel that helping societies return to normalcy may be the underlying factor for exponentially reducing stress.”
Frederickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172–175.
Holmes, E. A., Lang, T. J., & Shah, D. M. (2009). Developing interpretation bias modification as a “cognitive vaccine” for depressed mood: Imagining positive events makes you feel better than thinking about them verbally. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118(1), 76–88.
Mackinnon, A., Jorm, A. C., Christensen, H., Korten, A. E., Jacomb, P. A., & Rodgers, B. (1999). A short form of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule: Evaluation of factorial validity and invariance across demographic variables in a community sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 27(3), 405–416.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.
Stewart, R. A. C. & Krivan, S. L. (2022) Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi: September 29, 1934–October 20, 2021. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 50(1), Article e11549.
Robert A. C. Stewart | Editor-in-Chief