Short, text-based infusions of happiness could help with recovery from substance abuse, a new study reports.


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Brief, text-based, self-administered…it doesn’t sound like a very good fix for substance addiction. But a new study from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Recovery Research Institute says such exercises can help adults recovering from substance use disorders by significantly increasing their in-the-moment happiness.

The study is the first of its kind to test whether positive psychology exercises boost happiness in persons recovering from substance use.

Write it out

“Addiction scientists are increasingly moving beyond the traditional focus on reducing or eliminating substance use by advocating treatment protocols that encompass quality of life,” says lead author Bettina B. Hoeppner, PhD, senior research scientist at the Recovery Research Institute.

“Yet orchestrated positive experiences are rarely incorporated into treatment for those with substance use disorders.”

Using a randomized online survey, the team assigned 500 adults — who had reported current or previous problematic substance abuse —  one of five short, text-based exercises. These took on average four minutes to complete. The exercises were meant to give each participant an injection of happiness and see how it would help them cope.

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Participants reported the greatest gains in happiness after completing an exercise called “Reliving Happy Moments,” in which they selected one of their own photos that captured a happy moment and entered text describing what was happening in the picture. Another exercise called “Savoring”, in which participants described two positive experiences they noticed and appreciated during the preceding day was the close second, followed by “Rose, Thorn, Bud,” in which they listed a highlight and a challenge of the preceding day and something pleasurable they anticipated the following day.

One of the exercises, “3 Hard Things” — in which participants were asked to write about challenges they had faced during the preceding day — led to a significant decrease in happiness.

The authors explain that feelings of happiness are a key component of lasting, long-term recovery.

They write that they recommend these positive psychology exercises for substance abuse therapy due to their ease of use and their effectiveness in this study.

“These findings underscore the importance of offsetting the challenges of recovery with positive experiences,” says Hoeppner, an associate professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“Recovery is hard, and for the effort to be sustainable, positive experiences need to be attainable along the way.”

The paper “Do self-administered positive psychology exercises work in persons in recovery from problematic substance use? An online randomized survey” has been published online in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.