Your intervention, your way! Short appraisal interventions

by Katarzyna Cantarero, SWPS University, Poland

Subjective well-being is a function of what we were born with, situations that pop up in our lives and (luckily!) what we intentionally do. Many researchers have examined what can effectively boost our psychological functioning. Short appraisal (or affirmation) interventions can be one helpful tool in enhancing positive outcomes for people.

Research shows that short writing tasks (e.g., gratitude lists or letters) can enhance psychological well-being. In a large multi-lab study, researchers from 87 countries indicated that simple reappraisal interventions (i.e., changing how one feels about a situation or focusing on positive aspects of a situation) boosted positive emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Appraising an event that is potentially stressful can be helpful in drawing benefits from it. During these appraisal tasks, individuals come up with arguments about the positive side of situations they find themselves in. 

Enhancing subjective well-being through affirming psychological needs

During the pandemic, our group investigated whether short, online interventions can enhance individuals’ subjective well-being. We focused on challenges posed to basic psychological needs (i.e., autonomy, relatedness and competence) that people might experience amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The need for autonomy is related to a sense of choice and freedom, need for competence is connected to feeling that one can achieve their goals and need for relatedness is linked to feeling connected with the close ones. According to Self-Determination Theory, the satisfaction of these basic psychological needs is essential for human functioning. We found that people that felt that their basic psychological needs were met, reported higher levels of mental well-being. 

In a follow-up study, we asked people to write about a situation where, despite the restrictions introduced to their lifestyle that were caused by the pandemic, they were able to feel a sense of autonomy, competence and/or relatedness. This short intervention increased mental well-being through an enhanced sense of relatedness, and lowered perceived stress compared to the control group. Short and simple online tasks like this may therefore help people to feel better, but it is not yet known how long these positive effects might last. 

Boosting work meaningfulness and work engagement

In a separate line of research, our research group asked whether applying similar short, online interventions could boost positive outcomes in work contexts. We were particularly interested in work engagement and work meaningfulness. Work engagement is often described as a feeling of dedication, absorption and vigor related to work. High work engagement has benefits for individuals and for organizations (e.g., better performance, higher job satisfaction and lower depressive symptoms). Similarly, work meaningfulness is linked to various psychological benefits including those that fall outside of work context (e.g., lower anxiety, higher well-being). 

Previous studies suggested several sources of work meaningfulness (e.g., serving greater good, helping others, personal development, making money). We assumed that the sources can be categorized into self-oriented or other-oriented sources of work meaning. We set out to test if a meaning intervention that would appraise self- or other-oriented sources of meaning would boost work meaningfulness and work engagement. First, we found that when employees were asked to write about why they consider their work meaningful, it resulted in higher work meaningfulness and momentary work engagement compared to the control condition (where employees described the equipment they use at work). In the next study, we asked employees to write about either serving a greater good or advancing one’s professional career as sources of work meaningfulness vs. the equipment they use at work (control group). We found that writing about how one’s work brings benefits to others boosts work meaningfulness and, consequently, work engagement.

To sum up, brief appraisal interventions are a promising self-help or other-administered way to improve psychological well-being, at least in the short term. As people themselves provide the examples, the interventions are well tailored to the individual and may therefore be more effective. To improve the psychological well-being of your clients, or to boost work meaningfulness and work engagement, you can consider offering them one of the writing tasks recommended below.

Practical recommendations

  • To boost subjective well-being and lower stress, ask them to write about a situation where they felt some or all of the following: 
    • A sense of autonomy, e.g., when you have been feeling a sense of choice and freedom in the things you are undertaking;
    • A sense of competence, e.g., when you have been feeling that you are able to achieve your goals;
    • A sense of relatedness, e.g., when you have been feeling connected with people who care for you and for whom you care.
  • In workplace settings, you could suggest to your client to write down the reasons why their work is meaningful. Or advise them to ask themselves about how their work serves a greater good.

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