Massive meta-analysis uncovers best strategies for improving well-being
A new meta-analysis, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, has reviewed over 400 clinical trials investigating the efficacy of various psychological interventions on mental well-being in an attempt to empirically categorize the most effective tactics to improve one’s well-being.
"During stressful and uncertain periods in our lives, pro-actively working on our mental health is crucial to help mitigate the risk of mental and physical illness," explains Joep Van Agteren, corresponding author on the new study. "Our research suggests there are numerous psychological approaches people should experiment with to determine what works for them."
The meta-analysis gathered data from 419 randomized clinical trials and the interventions they tested were grouped into around 10 categories, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness interventions, and positive psychological interventions (PPIs). The research encompassed 53,288 subjects, divided into three groups: individuals with a mental illness, individuals with physical illness, and generally healthy subjects.
The most significant finding to come from the research was the broad efficacy of mindfulness interventions. In all three groups this category of intervention, including meditation and breath work, generated the greatest increases in well-being.
Unsurprisingly, CBT was found to be effective at improving well-being in subjects with a clinically diagnosed mental illness. However, for those generally healthy subjects a different kind of therapy, called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), was more useful.
PPIs such as gratitude journaling or other activities designed to cultivate positive feelings were not effective in isolation, and were only beneficial when performed in combinations. So, multiple PPIs are necessary to garner improvements to well-being. This finding mirrors recent reviews looking solely at PPI research.
Another somewhat predictable finding was the longer an individual spent pursuing a given intervention, the more effective that intervention was. This was consistent regardless of the intervention.
"Just trying something once or twice isn't enough to have a measurable impact,” notes co-author Matthew Iasiello. “Regardless of what method people are trying out, they need to stick at it for weeks and months at a time for it to have a real effect.”
The meta-analysis is compelling in its attempts to empirically synthesize hundreds of disparate clinical trials. Several dozen well-being scales were deployed by the various trials and the researchers do note much of the data they reviewed was of low quality.
However, just because it may be challenging to quantify the effects of these kinds of psychological interventions doesn’t mean it is impossible or futile. The researchers are clear to note this kind of meta-analysis should help inform more focused future trials which can home in on which kinds of interventions should be deployed in particular contexts.
“Researchers are increasingly calling for personalized approaches to intervention delivery – first to optimize the impact of the interventions, and second, to determine which factors impact at the individual level as opposed to the group level,” the study concludes. “Technological advances and maturing of the field of well-being science should lead to more traction in the upcoming decade.”
The new study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
Source: Flinders University