Are people in therapy happier than people who are not in therapy?
February 4, 2009 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Are people in therapy happier than people who are not in therapy?

I'm not in therapy, have never been in it, and see no need for it in my life. This question arises from my own curiosity.

As for the question itself, let me be clear: I am not asking whether or not therapy "works." I am not asking why people in therapy are, or are not, happier than others--though I suppose I might be interested to see some evidence-based theories and data.

Really, though, I'm only looking for credible data about whether or not, all things other things being equal, people who are in therapy are happier than people who are not in therapy. I'm wondering, also, whether societies with "therapy cultures" (e.g. the West) are happier than societies without (e.g. Asia).
posted by smorange to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: there is no way of knowing, especially with the subjective nature of what "happiness" even means. Is it equivocal to "subjective well being"? Or is it "satisfaction with life"? Psychology is the field that would tackle this, and I can tell you that there hasn't yet been a way of operationalizing happiness that is without its share of theoretical problems.
posted by tybeet at 7:09 AM on February 4, 2009

No, I'm not presuming the goal of therapy is happiness. I'm just looking for data.
posted by smorange at 7:11 AM on February 4, 2009

[few comments removed - question is pretty narrowly tailored - please take metadiscussion to metatalk or email, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2009

You're asking for data on something as completely subjective as happiness? Happiness according to whom? I mean, even presuming you could somehow survey therapy patients as to their level of happiness, who exactly would be gathering that information from the vast majority of non-therapy going people?
posted by JaredSeth at 7:20 AM on February 4, 2009

I don't think happiness is impossible to measure. Of course, you need to make some compromises, but you could use a set of depression and hopelessness scales and see if some people score lower than others.

As for an answer, I don't have it, I'm sure I've read somewhere that putting people into therapy while they don't want to/think they should might be harmful, but alas I don't remember where or if it was at all based on actual fact.
posted by bjrn at 7:28 AM on February 4, 2009

I'm wondering, also, whether societies with "therapy cultures" (e.g. the West)

This doesn't answer the question, but I'd just like to mention that not all of the West is a therapy culture - like lawyering, it seems to be a peculiarly American thing. In fact growing up in NZ, I don't think I've ever met one person who'd been in therapy of any sort whatsoever.
posted by dydecker at 7:31 AM on February 4, 2009

I doubt you'll be able to find data covering the broad question you want to answer here, because 1) there are many different varieties of psychotherapy1, and any individual study is likely to cover one (or a small number) of them, and 2) studies are usually directed towards people with a particular condition, not the population as a whole. That being said, you might want to peruse the "psychotherapy/statistics and numerical data" heading at PubMed. A lot of the papers in this category are not relevant to what you're looking for, but some may be, so you'll have to do a bit of filtering. (Also, if you click on the "Review" tab those may be more relevant.)

JaredSeth: yes, subjective things such as happiness can and sometimes are measured in studies. It's not perfect of course: when my doctor asks me to "rate my pain on a scale of 0-10" I have no way of knowing whether my "4" is more or less than anyone else's "4," but that doesn't make it completely meaningless. Same goes for happiness. But the point about non-collection of data from the general public is a good one.

1I say "psychotherapy" rather than "therapy," since in the medical literature "therapy" means any type of treatment at all—taking aspirin for a headache is a therapy, in the medical sense. I think "psychotherapy" as it's used in the medical literature approaches what you're looking for.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:34 AM on February 4, 2009

I think people who have a steady, regular platform from which to discuss their problems with an objective outsider could be said to have clear advantage over those who do not.
posted by hermitosis at 7:41 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Let me try this again, because I might not have stated myself clearly. If you don't control for the fact that subjects might be getting therapy from other sources or in other capacities, you can't trust the findings.

I couldn't find anything in a quick 10 minute search that would directly answer your question. But you might try looking at research that uses the Satisfaction With Life Scale, if you think what they are using to operationally define happiness matches up to what you think happiness is.
posted by Silvertree at 7:45 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like some others here, I do think there are (imperfect) ways to measure happiness. However, you you should think about whether you mean happier while IN therapy or happier as a RESULT of therapy.

In my case, I was LESS happy when I was in therapy, because my therapist forced me to confront all sorts of things that were painful. Years later, I'm grateful for the therapy, because it got me through the pain, and I was able to grow as a result. I'm a happier person, but at the actual time I was in therapy, I was miserable. I dreaded going.

I'm so glad I went.
posted by grumblebee at 7:49 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple in marriage counseling is likely to be less happy than a couple not seeking marriage counseling (on average). A person who has been diagnosed with depression is going to be less happy than someone without it, almost by definition.

A hospital is not where you go to find healthy people.
posted by Horselover Fat at 7:57 AM on February 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

I would guess that someone who feels they don't need therapy would be just as happy or happier without going while someone who feels they do need therapy would be happier being in therapy. Vague response, I suppose, but there's also something to be said for the happiness boosting power of simply having someone to confide in (i.e. a therapist) which could imply that anyone is happier in therapy.
posted by big open mouth at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2009

That rests on the assumption that most people who aren't happy get therapy. Just because a couple isn't in counseling doesn't mean their relationship is good. And just because someone is depressed, doesn't mean they're diagnosed.
posted by bjrn at 8:04 AM on February 4, 2009

Happiness is certainly a difficult construct to measure; you may want to decide if terms like "well-being," "positive affect," or "life satisfaction" capture some of what you're looking for as well.

Scott Miller and Barry Duncan run the Institute for the Study of Therapeutic Change (ISTC) [website here: Talking Cure, which misses the mark of your question, but does have some interesting things to say about exactly *how* therapy works (and doesn't work) and what it is about therapy that works (or doesn't). Of particular interest might be this page titled: "What Works in Therapy?" However, Miller and Duncan's work is largely focused on the establishment of 'common factors' across models of therapy, rather than looking at 'happiness' or 'well-being.' [Again, I know this is expressly *not* what you're asking, but it's hard to get at what you're asking without looking at the research on the *how* of therapy. Also, they're doing some of the most evidenced-based research in the field right now, which you said you might be interested in.]

A quick EbscoHost search on "Happiness" and "Therapy" pulled up an article titled: "Increasing well-being through teaching goal-setting and planning skills: results of a brief intervention" by MacLeod, Coates, and Hetherton (2008) from the aptly-named Journal for Happiness Studies.

[An aside: This Journal for Happiness Studies may be something to further your search on this question. A quick perusal of a few of their most recent volumes, however, shows that they seem to be doing a lot more research on how to come up with a definition of "happiness," and how highly difficult that undertaking is.]

Here's the abstract from that article, explaining partly, I think, why your question is a difficult one to answer:

Many factors are known to be associated with psychological well-being. However, it is much less clear whether those factors actually cause well-being and, hence, whether there is any practical value in trying to manipulate those factors to increase well-being. The proposed study addresses both the theoretical and practical issues by testing the effectiveness of an empirically-derived, brief psychological intervention to increase well-being in a non-clinical, unselected sample. The intervention focused on developing goal setting and planning (GAP) skills, which are known to be linked to well-being, potentially have widespread effects, and are amenable to intervention. Within a quasi-experimental design, participants received three, 1-h, group sessions (Study 1) or completed the programme individually in their own time (Study 2). Those taking part in the intervention, both individually and in a group, showed significant increases in subjective well-being, compared to their respective control groups not receiving the intervention. The results provide preliminary support for the view that (a) goal setting and planning skills have a causal link to subjective well-being and (b) that such skills can be learned to enhance well-being.

Furthermore, my own experience in doing therapy (I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, fwiw) might lead me to argue that people in therapy are not happier than people not in therapy, because happy people don't generally come to therapy. For example, many of the couples I see have come to me because they feel they've tried everything else and are on the verge of divorce (many having already begun the process). So, if there's a general baseline for marital happiness, the vast majority of my clients have been well below this baseline. Through lots of therapy, perhaps they'll manage to get back up to that baseline or even above it, but this may take plenty of time, and thus, they may never get to be necessarily "happier" than their non-therapy counterparts.

Kind of like if someone has lost their legs, then they get prosthetics and go through physical therapy. It doesn't follow that because of their involvement with physical therapy, they can now run faster than someone who hasn't had physical therapy (but who has their legs). But it does say a lot that they're even walking. So, running a direct comparison on, say, mobility for these two groups, doesn't work.

Yours is a good question, but difficult to answer. Good luck.
posted by cheeken at 8:27 AM on February 4, 2009

I think this is an interesting question, and I'd like to know the answer too, but I'm not sure how it can be answered with statistical accuracy. As mentioned above, there are many different kinds of psychotherapy, as well as many different reasons one might seek therapy, and happiness is difficult to quantify. Additionally, from your question it's difficult to discern whether you're asking if happier people seek therapy, or if being in therapy makes people happier.

Anecdotally, I was not happy in therapy because I disliked my therapist, found his questions to be irrelevant to the things I was struggling with, and generally thought he was ineffective. The patient's perception of whether therapy is working for them may be another variable to consider.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:35 AM on February 4, 2009

Anyone answering here is going to be biased based on their own opinions of therapy in general, whether they have had it, want it, their experiences etc. etc. To use one example (not picking at hermitosis) but hermitosis's answer sounds authoritative and final. To me, it sounds like he has been in therapy and found it valuable. But his answer is only really authoritative for him, an n of 1.

My knee-jerk reaction to reading your question title was completely the opposite: "of course they're not happier - they're in therapy! If they were happy, they wouldn't need therapy!"

This is naturally colored by my own biases and assumptions (ie. people in therapy are sad). I know that is an incorrect and simplistic assumption but it's what came to my mind first.

A long answer to basically say I don't think you're going to get a good answer.
posted by gaspode at 8:37 AM on February 4, 2009

Martin Seligman is trying to get psychology to directly address happiness rather than only treating dysfunction. He's a real psychologist at UPenn, not some random kook. Some of his books (and probably his website) include statistics that might directly address your question.
posted by callmejay at 8:41 AM on February 4, 2009

Oh, and anecdotally, I'm much happier now than I was a few years ago when I entered therapy.
posted by callmejay at 8:41 AM on February 4, 2009

smorange: I'm wondering, also, whether societies with "therapy cultures" (e.g. the West) are happier than societies without (e.g. Asia).

You may be interested in checking out Gross National Happiness. I don't know if anything meaningful ever came out of it, but it's an interesting attempt to look at happiness at the macro level.
posted by mkultra at 8:43 AM on February 4, 2009

(I actually did a post on the Blue about it a few years ago...)
posted by mkultra at 8:44 AM on February 4, 2009

C. G. Jung said that the goal of therapy is not to make the patient happy, it is to make him [or her] able to cope with the unhappiness that is common to us all.
posted by RussHy at 8:48 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think someone who has an understanding and acceptance of their family dynamics, or has been taught coping skills for things that are emotionally crippling (though part of normal human struggle or suffering) would likely be able to find more happiness than those who don't have those tools. Good therapy can give you those tools. So yes, I think it's possible.
posted by agentwills at 9:44 AM on February 4, 2009

You also have to define what "in therapy" means. Is this someone who goes to a psychologist or counselor once a week? Once a month? Every three months? Once? Someone who is undergoing a set course of a specific kind of therapy such as CBT? Someone who has completed therapy? These are all very different things. Some people are in therapy because they have very severe and permanent emotional, personality, or mood disorders. Are they ever going to be happier than the general public? Probably not.

Or do you mean would the average person tend to be happier with therapy or without? Personally, I doubt it would be possible to get reliable results on this topic. Way too many factors varying from the individual, mental disorders, type of therapy, and effectiveness of the therapist. Oh, and the definition of happiness.
posted by threeturtles at 10:04 AM on February 4, 2009

Onto discussing the happiness of people in eastern and western cultures -- I would have to point out that many therapeutic exercises (mental and physical) come from eastern cultures. It's not so much a "talk to a therapist who will fix your problems for you", it's their understanding that habitual mental and physical training can ground you and bring you peace. In this instance, I would surmise that people in 'therapy' would be happier than those who aren't.

This tibetan monk has a delightful way of explaining the habits of happiness.
posted by lizbunny at 10:32 AM on February 4, 2009

p.s: smorange, there's data in that link of the tibetan monk video for you.
posted by lizbunny at 10:34 AM on February 4, 2009

It probably also depends on how far into therapy they are. For a long time I felt like I was making no progress, so no, I wasn't happier. Near the end though, I was a lot happier.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:41 PM on April 9, 2009

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