Grant will fund IU study on gratitude intervention’s effectiveness in psychotherapy

Two-year study to examine how the practice might benefit mental health

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Greater Good Science Center based at the University of California-Berkeley has granted nearly $200,000 to an Indiana University School of Education researcher and IU Psychological and Brain Sciences faculty member to study whether gratitude interventions might benefit psychotherapy clients. Joel Wong, associate professor of counseling psychology at the IU School of Education, and Joshua Brown, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, are the lead investigators on the study “The Use of a Gratitude Writing Intervention with Psychotherapy for Outpatient Clients.”

Gratitude interventions are a mental health technique in which a participant expresses gratitude for things he or she appreciates about his or her life. Studies have shown the interventions can help with overall happiness, but they haven't addressed effectiveness in psychotherapy.

“Most of the previous studies have looked at healthy people,” Wong said. “We’re trying to test out gratitude intervention with people who tend to be psychologically distressed and are seeking mental health treatments.”

Wong said he has used the intervention with his own clients in therapy, and he believes participants in the study will benefit from the intervention. Participants will write “gratitude letters” in three writing sessions for 20 minutes each.

“You write to a person you’re grateful to, and we’re not going to tell you what to do with the letter,” Wong said. “The act of writing focuses your attention on what you’re grateful for, on all the good things you receive in your life. That we believe to be effective and have positive effects on mental health.”

The other part of the study will examine why such interventions may work. Brown is examining the neurological processes that the intervention triggers. Using IU’s state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, Brown will measure brain activity in the psychotherapy patients.

“We anticipate that expressing gratitude will make certain parts of the brain work better and be more sensitive to other people,” Brown said, “and we also expect to find changes in brain activity as participants experience greater overall happiness following the gratitude intervention.”

The brain activity measurements will be carried out at the Imaging Research Facility in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Brown regularly measures brain activity and works to build computer models that mimic brain function. The gratitude intervention study will be part of his research on how people think before they act, and how they evaluate the consequences of their own actions.

The Greater Good Science Center funded the study as part of its “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” project, which is also supported by funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The center’s mission is to benefit science and practice, sponsoring scientific research into social and emotional well-being while also assisting in application to professional and personal circumstances. The IU study was selected as just 14 funded among more than 300 applicants.

When the study is completed, Wong expects some evidence that the gratitude intervention has an impact on clients receiving psychotherapy. Researchers will compare psychotherapy clients who participate in the gratitude intervention with those who do not three months after the intervention.

“The other benefit that we see is a more indirect benefit,” Wong said. “We’re expecting that those participating in this gratitude intervention will also report a better relationship with their therapist. A good relationship with the therapist has been shown in previous research to be one of the strongest and best predictors of good therapy outcomes.”

The research project begins Sept. 1, with data collection also starting this fall. Wong and Brown are invited to participate in a workshop on gratitude research next year and another conference in 2014 as a part of the grant.