For such a simple concept, the pursuit of happiness is rather complicated. It's influenced by factors both major (job satisfaction and relationships) and minor (the length of the line at the coffee shop this morning, which felt long enough to wrap around the world twice). It's been well-established by research, not to mention common sense, that negative thoughts tend to put a damper on things; it's hard to be happy when you're laser-focused on the embarrassments and awkward moments that make up everyday life. But according to recent research, the reverse is also true — positive imagery techniques might help fight depression and promote wellbeing.
Often used in cognitive therapy, these techniques are intended to help people overcome negative thoughts and emotions by directing the imagination in a positive way; it's particularly useful in the treatment of disorders like PSTD. (On a different note, they're also used in sport psychology to help athletes improve their performance.) The usefulness of positive imagery in therapy is fairly well-established, but a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience study poses a new question: is positive imagery helpful for people without mental illness?
According to researchers' results, the answer appears to be yes. In the study, researchers in Norway held a two-day workshop teaching 30 healthy volunteers a series of self-guided imagery techniques designed to cope with negative emotions stemming from the past, improve social interactions, and maintain daily emotional balance.
Over the next 12 weeks, volunteers were asked to train themselves in these techniques for 15-20 minutes a day, and at the end of the period, they came back for another two-day workshop. Psychological evaluations and EEG scans were administered before and after the imagery training for comparison.
According to researchers, symptoms of depression decreased and participants reported greater life satisfaction after imagery training. In fact, according to Science Daily, one researcher said the number people with "subthreshold depression," who show some symptoms but don't fit the criteria for a disorder, was cut in half. Furthermore, the EEG scans showed altered brain activity in parts of the brain associated with mood regulation as well some changes in connectivity. Altogether, researchers believe there's evidence for a possible increase in the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA — at least, enough evidence to make it an avenue worth exploring.
It's a relatively small study, so the results aren't scientific law or anything. It's also worth noting that the study specifically focused on people without depression and anxiety disorders, and participants were using techniques taught to them by a professional. Basically, the study isn't suggesting that positive thinking will "fix" depression. On the other hand, it looks like positive imagery can be useful even for people who aren't in therapy — so next time you're standing in that infinite coffee shop line, maybe focus less on your splitting caffeine headache and more on the prospect of sweet, sweet caffeine in the near(ish) future.