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SSHRC-Funded project discovers writing yourself a feel-good letter can lead to an emotional boost

SSHRC-Funded project discovers writing yourself a feel-good letter can lead to an emotional boost

Writing yourself a feel-good letter can lead to a long-term boost in emotional well-being, although it won’t work if you’re extremely needy, a York University study has found.

Individuals who wrote themselves a compassionate or optimistic letter every day for a week were less depressed up to three months later and reported an overall increase in happiness after six months.

More than 200 people logged onto a website for seven consecutive nights to complete the exercise, then filled out questionnaires measuring their progress at intervals of one, three and six months. Participants were assigned one of three conditions: self-compassion, optimism or a neutral control condition.

“Interestingly, we noted significant improvements in mood for all participants, except those who exhibited extreme neediness,” says study co-author Myriam Mongrain (right), a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health.

In the self-compassion exercise, participants were directed to address an upsetting event, attempting to comfort themselves as they would a friend in a similar situation.

“The idea was to try and be good to yourself, to realize your distress makes sense and provide the words you would need to hear to feel nurtured and soothed,” Mongrain says. The exercise was adapted by Leah Shapira, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in York’s Department of Psychology.

Those assigned an optimistic task were instructed to visualize a future in which current issues were resolved and give themselves advice on paper on how to get there. In the control condition, participants wrote freely about an early memory.

Researchers then looked at the effect of compassion versus optimism for individuals prone to depression. Numerous studies, including Mongrain’s own, have established that dependent and self-critical personality types are at high risk for depression. Self critics feel guilty for not living up to the demanding standards they set for themselves, generating feelings of worthlessness. Dependent personalities are characterized by fear of abandonment and the dissolution of interpersonal relationships.

“Immature dependents experience intense fear of rejection and a sense of helplessness,” Mongrain says. “Mature dependents, on the other hand, thrive on connectedness; they are people pleasers who experience anxiety but can have positive and trusting interactions with others.”

Researchers found that self critics experienced the greatest benefits from optimism exercises, whereas those with more connected personalities profited most from self-compassion. “Connected individuals are able to nurture others, meaning that this compassion can theoretically be extended to the self,” Mongrain says.

The study, “The Benefits of Self-Compassion and Optimism Exercises for Individuals Vulnerable to Depression”, was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. Those with access can view the study through Informaworld via York University Libraries.

This study was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Mongrain's study was covered by Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson on Nov. 15 in an article that included fictional satirical letters to themselves by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff:

Anyone can write a love note to himself to help create lasting happiness. The only caveat is that it doesn't work as well if you're too self-critical, needy and oversensitive to potential abandonment. That's the finding of a research paper out of York University, published recently in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

"It was an effort to create a tool for when things don't go as well as you wanted," says Myriam Mongrain, professor of psychology in York's Faculty of Hedicine, who worked as project leader on the study along with lead author and York graduate student Leah Shapira (MA '09).

Mongrain acknowledges that in Western society such Buddhist-style loving kindness directed toward the self is not encouraged or even acceptable. "Many believe that you won't get anywhere by being kind to yourself; letting yourself off the hook is a recipe for failure or disaster," she says. "They've begun to believe that they need to be tough on themselves to reach their high standards.... For them, they might think it meant they were lazy or self-indulgent. But it offers another world view, another prescription in how to relate to oneself. ... The public needs to know that this will not interfere with their work ethic."

The approach might also lead to greater harmony among people, she adds. "If you interpret events as signs that you're incompetent, that you're a failure, that you're inadequate, all of those judgments toward yourself will lead to an unhealthy approach – overcompensating for example...and you become angry as a way to defend yourself, to retaliate."

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin