John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

I Wish You Health and Happiness

(an "experiment")


When I talk about cognitive therapies in my classes, I mention the longstanding western concepts about the "power of positive thinking" and how those concepts parallel ideas in eastern philosophy. For example, elements of the Buddhist Eightfold Path include "right thinking" and "right speech." By thinking and saying positive thoughts about and to others, you gradually can create a positive change not only in the other person, but also in yourself. In the terms of cognitive behavior therapy, one is restructuring cognitions. A Buddhist might add that "What goes around, comes around."

As an exercise to illustrate this, I tell the class that we are going to conduct a quick "experiment." These are the steps:

1. I have the students count off by two's.

2. I ask the One's, "How many of you are in a positive mood today? How many of you are in a negative mood?" On the board I record these numbers.

3. I ask the Two's the same questions and again tally the results on the board.

4. I tell the One's to follow me out of the room. In the hallway, I simply tell them to hang out for a few minutes, to talk to each other, and that I'll come back to get them.

5. I return to the classroom and say to the Two's, "I wish you health and happiness." They usually laugh. I tell them to get up and while shaking the hands of five people in the room and looking them in the eye, say, as earnestly as possible, "I wish you health and happiness." Usually, they do this with little difficulty, although there is some awkwardness and giggling. Once they finish, we all say together, "I wish you health and happiness."

6. I call the One's back into the room and again tally the positive and negative moods for both groups. I've never conducted any statistical analyses of the results, but just by eyeballing the data on the board, it's clear that this wishing others health and happiness has some kind of positive effect on the second group, while the first group typically doesn't change much.

The added bonus, from an experimentalists point of view, is to discuss the validity of this little experiment.

A simpler version of this exercise
entails tallying up how many students are in a "positive" mood and how many are in a "negative" mood. On the chalkboard I label the first column in a 2x2 cell the "before" column and place the tallied numbers in the vertically positioned "positive" and "negative" cells. Then I instruct everyone in the room to shake the hands of five people while genuinely wishing them health and happiness. Afterwards, I tally up the positive and negative moods again, and place those numbers in the cells under the "after" column..... As the 2x2 cell reveals every time I do this exercise, the "treatment" effect clearly works!

For an extra credit assignment
I tell students to pick out someone in their lives that they are not getting along with. Go up to that person and, as sincerely as possible, say "I wish you health and happiness." Notice how that person reacts, and note your own reactions. I tell the students to describe the experience in a short write-up to be handed in (almost always, the interpersonal effect of offering this wish is quite remarkable).

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