Making yourself happy

Happy, happy, joy, joy!: A new study touts the positive effects of Personal Activity Interventions (PAIs).
Happy, happy, joy, joy!: A new study touts the positive effects of Personal Activity Interventions (PAIs).Courtesy Mark Ryan

"Got no checkbooks, got no banks,
Still, I'd like to express my thanks.
I've got the sun in the morning
And the moon at night.“

Words and music by Irving Berlin

The simple sentiments found in the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night” are at the core of a self-administered therapy technique that has proven helpful for folks who suffer from depression.

Researchers from the University of California-Riverside and Duke University in North Carolina recently reviewed medical literature regarding a technique known as Personal Activity Interventions (PAIs). PAIs involve using simple, self-administered techniques such as counting your blessings, acting kindly towards others, showing gratitude (i.e. writing thank you notes), and meditating positive feelings about others, among other things, and according to the study, showed significant positive results for people suffering from depression. The affliction can be disabilitating, and there are a lot of sufferers out there, something like 100 million people worldwide.

Depression, according the study, is “a heterogeneous condition with molecular and biochemical origins that are still not fully understood.” It goes on to say that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that less than 10 percent of those who do suffer get treated for it. The reasons for lack of proper treatment range from economic distress to stigma to the lack of medical resources and providers. When resources are at hand, conventional treatments usually involve patients talking with a therapist or taking pharmaceuticals, or both. But the authors note that the current drug therapy is not quite up to par.

"Response rates to a single antidepressant are generally considered to be 60%–70%, with over 80% of the drug effect accounted for by placebo effects. Even with this relatively high percentage of ‘‘responders’’ to drug treatment, initial pharmacotherapy produces remission in only 30%– 40% of the depressed population.“

Harnessing the Power of Positive Thoughts and Emotions to Treat Depression

This brings to mind how some new television commercials are touting taking an additional drug that may be helpful if your regular anti-depressant isn’t quite doing its job. They urge you to ask your doctor if the advertised drug is right for you. So, essentially what the drug companies are saying is if one of our drugs isn’t doing it for you, just take more. What happens when the new drug doesn’t work? I think you’re asking for trouble going down that road.

But I like this idea of using PAIs. The study claims the improvement rate from their use is remarkable and longer lasting than traditional talk and drug therapies. What’s particularly interesting is that PAIs carry almost none of the obstacles involved with conventional treatment methods. Often when a patient is in the depths of depression it can be difficult for them to find the motivation to seek out traditional therapies. The steps involved in finding a therapist, setting up an appointment, getting themselves to the therapist’s office, can appear daunting when struggling with depression. Many current anti-depressants can take weeks to become effective, or can produce unwanted side effects, or even carry a stigma of embarrassment for some patients. As mentioned before, the lack of economic resources or treatment accessibility can also block a patient from getting treatment. But doing Personal Activity Interventions involve none of those obstacles, and since PAIs are self-administered, any successful results can empower a user and bolster his or hers self-esteem. The method can also give an additional sense of accomplishment because the therapy doesn’t involve the aid of outside factors such as therapists and drugs. The resulting elevated mood can raise productivity and creativity levels, and enhance personal relationships.

So, empirically, PAIs seem to be effective in reversing a downward mood spiral. I figure anything that proves helpful in battling depression can’t be bad, and that includes traditional talk and drug therapies. It’s interesting to note that besides in Irving Berlin’s song some of the techniques found in the PAIs method such as expressing gratitude, wishing others well, and meditating can also be found in many 12-step recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

The review appeared in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and is available free online to download here.

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