Holli-Anne Passmore a PhD candidate in psychology at UBC’s Okanagan campus Photo:contributed

UBC study focuses on reducing the fear of being too happy

The study proves people are able to control their own happiness

A UBC researcher has helped establish that, even for people who have a fear of happiness, brief, positive psychology interventions embedded within university courses can enhance well-being.

Holli-Anne Passmore, a PhD candidate in psychology at UBC’s Okanagan campus, does research on well-being and personal happiness. There are conflicting views on the value of happiness, and a person’s culture or religion can significantly affect how personal happiness is understood.

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Collaborating with international colleagues, Passmore recently examined the effects of a positive psychology intervention (PPI) study at the culturally diverse Canadian University of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. More than 270 students, from 39 different countries, participated in the study and 78 per cent of them were Muslim. For half of the students, the Happiness 101 program was added to the regular curriculum of an Introduction to Psychology course.

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“Fear of happiness is a real thing. Others worry about the fragility of happiness,” Passmore said. “In some cultures, a person may not want to be too happy or believe that if they outwardly strive for happiness, they may tempt fate or create social disharmony. They may also believe that any happiness enjoyed will only be fleeting. Valuing happiness is not universally shared.”

“There are a lot of students who live with the underlying sentiment that happiness is beyond their control,” said Passmore. “They truly believe happiness is mainly controlled by specific events, or a religious deity or a being, or other circumstances.”

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Passmore says participants learned to use positive psychology interventions—analytically validated and focused activities designed to increase the frequency of positive emotions and experiences. PPIs can help with anxiety, depression, somatic complaints, optimism, relationships, hopelessness, and the ability to deal with stress and trauma.

The researchers measured different aspects of the students’ well-being at the beginning and end of the semester, and three months later. Compared to students who were not exposed to the positive psychology interventions, students who had the PPI program added to the usual course content reported higher levels of well-being at the end of the semester. Additionally, says Passmore, fear of happiness decreased and the belief that happiness is fragile was also reduced. The boost in well-being and the decreases in beliefs regarding fear and fragility of happiness were still evident three months after the course.

“It’s important to validate the effectiveness of PPIs cross-culturally,” Passmore said. “This is the first study that we’re aware of, which shows you can manipulate beliefs in the fear and fragility of happiness. While no difference in religiosity was evident between the two groups at post-intervention, our participants came to the understanding that they do have some control over their own happiness.”

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