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. For those with access to Informaworld via York University Libraries, the article can be seen here.
This study was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.