Seeing others happy may help prevent depression

In a laboratory environment, most of us identify positive facial emotions faster than negative ones. But how does the extent of this ‘happy bias’ affect our daily lives? A new study, published in Hindawi’s open-access journal Complexity, aimed to find out more about the mechanisms behind happy bias by studying young people both in the lab and beyond it.

Past research suggested that people with a low happy bias – those who tend not to spot positive emotions as quickly as negative emotions, or spot them more slowly – may be at greater risk of depression.

However, while happy bias is more commonly explored in a laboratory setting, Charlotte Vrijen and colleagues at the University of GroningenUniversity Medical Center Groningen, and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, wanted to see how such bias translates to daily life.

They discovered that joyful and pleasant experiences more strongly predicted the daily emotions of those with a high happy bias than those with a low happy bias. These findings suggest that people with a high bias for happy facial emotions are more responsive to positive, rewarding experiences and emotions, and can more easily sustain them in their daily lives. On the other hand, such experiences and emotions are more short-lived in people with a low happy bias.

Exploring unhappiness in teenagers

“This research was part of the No Fun No Glory project – an investigation into how adolescents lose the ability to experience pleasure and how they might gain it back again,” says Vrijen.

The authors believe that strong responses to rewarding experiences and emotions are reflected in a high happy bias and the ability to sustain positivity in their daily lives. “Our finding that positive experiences and emotions seem to be more short-lived in the daily life of individuals with a low happy bias may be key to why such a bias is associated with an increased risk for depression.”

From lab to daily life – Potential treatment and prevention of depression

The researchers assessed each participant both in and out of the lab, and compared two groups with different levels of happy bias. As such, this study is one of the first to deeply investigate and identify potential links between happy bias in the laboratory environment and the daily, ever-changing emotional lives of the young people taking part.

The success of this so-called network approach is likely to prove useful for unravelling the psychological mechanisms underpinning other studies of emotion.

“I’m fascinated by investigating psychological processes from different perspectives – laboratory studies versus daily life measures – and time frames,” says Vrijen. “I think further study in these fields will help us to get a better understanding of these processes and may ultimately even inform treatment or prevention strategies.”

Vrijen thinks it would be interesting to further explore whether learning to savour happy and rewarding experiences, and thus generate greater positivity in everyday life, could help people with a low happy bias decrease their risk of depression.

Article details:

Charlotte Vrijen, Catharina A. Hartman, Eeske van Roekel, Peter de Jonge, and Albertine J. Oldehinkel, “Spread the Joy: How High and Low Bias for Happy Facial Emotions Translate into Different Daily Life Affect Dynamics,” Complexity, vol. 2018, Article ID 2674523, 15 pages, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/2674523.


By Hindawi in cooperation with SciencePOD. This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.