Written by Joaquín, Positive Psychology Program

When it comes to a field as broad-minded as positive psychology, there are several different types of research methods involved.

For example, some positive psychology experiments might seek to simply measure participants’ levels of well-being, while others try to affect change to participants’ levels of well-being. These two types of experiments alone involve different methods.

And beyond methods, there are different ways that an experiment can be designed, based on what the researchers intend to find out. Let’s examine what goes into building a positive psychology experiment.

Dependent Variables

One way to examine a field’s experiments is to take note of the dependent variables involved. That is, you can learn a lot about what a field is interested in by seeing what it’s measuring.

While the independent variables involved are also relevant for understanding a field, the dependent variables are a big part of figuring out which question is being answered. Positive psychology is ultimately most interested in well-being as a dependent variable, but there are several measurable factors which can affect someone’s level of well-being, and indeed, positive psychology experiments can focus on several of these factors within a single paper.

For example, a paper looking at the effect of finances on well-being investigated current and past household incomes, employment status, education levels, and even health status (Ravallion & Lokshin, 1999). These factors were all found to affect a person’s overall well-being, and they were also all found to be intertwined. It is of note that this study was observational in nature rather than experimental.

That is, the researchers did not attempt to influence their participants’ lives in order to modulate well-being, but they simply sought to understand how their lives as they were affected their levels of well-being. This study also looked at all quantitative measures, which are crucial towards understanding well-being but may not be enough.

Qualitative and Quantitative Measures

White et al. (2012) argue that quantitative measures should not be the only measures used in the study of well-being, but that they should be complemented by qualitative measures. The authors suggest that so-called objective measures of well-being can be approached in different ways depending on the community a respondent comes from.

For example, some might consider the presence of pleasure more heavily than the absence of pain when rating their own happiness, while others might do the opposite. Some respondents might also consider different time periods when describing their own happiness, from very recent history to a more long-term view.

These different conceptions of happiness would lead participants to measure their own well-being differently, even if asked precise questions. This could be solved by asking participants qualitative questions about how they think about happiness to complement the quantitative questions.

It is therefore important to consider both types of measures when studying well-being, even when only ultimately concerned with more quantitative measures, as the inclusion of qualitative measures will strengthen the findings of the quantitative measures.

Observational and Experimental Investigations

Going back a bit, there is also a major difference between observational investigations in positive psychology and experimental investigations. For example, a study might simply be interested in investigating well-being in certain populations without seeking to affect it (O’Hare, 2016).

On the other hand, a study in positive psychology could be attempting to change its participants’ levels of well-being (Sundar et al., 2016). These two types of studies usually look extremely different, with observational studies generally allowing for the study of larger populations while experiments are usually limited to a smaller population.

A positive psychology intervention may even combine observational and experimental practices by conducting a review of experimental papers (Wasson et al., 2016). In other words, Wasson et al. conducted an observational study which looked at several different types of experimental approaches to investigate the effectiveness of these different approaches. This shows that both observational and experimental approaches are crucial in the field of positive psychology, and can be combined to be particularly effective.

Neither observational nor experimental approaches are necessarily better than each other, as it is just as important to understand a phenomenon as it is to try and change it. For example, the O’Hare paper, in particular, discovered that researchers investigating the well-being of children need to dig deeper and look at differences between the well-being of white and non-white children.

An observational study based in a naturalistic setting can also serve to encourage a later experimental study in a laboratory setting, as this type of finding could help better direct future experimental investigations into positive psychology.

Survey Method

While positive psychology investigations can come in the form of observational, naturalistic studies as well as experiments based in laboratories, many positive psychology investigations focus on a similar method – surveying their participants. There are several ways to measure well-being and the factors that go into it, but the best way to figure out a person’s level of well-being is by simply asking them to rate their own well-being. This makes positive psychology experiments fairly easy to conduct, as they are mostly a matter of who to ask about their levels of well-being. 

A Take Home Message

Positive psychology investigations come in all sorts of forms and employ several different types of methods. One of the main distinctions between positive psychology investigations is whether researchers are seeking to understand something or whether they are looking to affect it.

As there are many different ways to study positive psychology, its potential to help people with different types of findings is very high. Similarly, since there are a range of ways to study positive psychology, it is feasible for many researchers to launch investigations regardless of their resources.

Keywords; positive psychology

About the Author

Joaquín is a writer who was first introduced to psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. This research experience was focused on addiction with the hopes of ultimately helping people change their habits. Joaquín was born in Nicaragua, now lives in the United States, and believes positive psychology teachings can improve people’s lives in both countries.