Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Reality TV meets the science of Positive Psychology
Making Australia Happy
Doctor Anthony Grant, one of the three presenters of the TV series, Making Australia Happy (2010) spoke at the recent Happiness and its Causes conference in Brisbane.
I wrote briefly about the series here (link). The excellent web site for the show is here (link)
The goal of the series was not to make the participants happy, but to introduce them to a number of interventions including Positive Psychology. It was hoped these would improve their levels of happiness over an eight week period. “The overarching aim of the series was to introduce positive psychology concepts to the general Australia public in order to encourage the use of scientifically validated approaches to the enhancement of wellbeing on an individual and community level.” says Dr Grant.
Participants were chosen so that the general public could identify with them; essentially they were 'the person next door'.
How happiness was measured
Dr Grant and his peers devised a happiness test, which incorporated a number of well-validated measures; this became known as the “Happy 100 Index”. (You can take the test here.) However, because the professionals wanted to go beyond a self-reported assessment, a range of physiological tests were also included, including blood pressure, stress, and sleep. Brain activity was measured before, during and after the programme.
The programme was holistic and acknowledged that diet and sleep can affect wellbeing significantly. As such, physical exercise levels, sleep patterns and diet were all examined. The participants were given feedback about the results, and sleep, exercise and dietary changes were encouraged as needed.
There was not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but an acknowledgement that different interventions would suit different individuals.
The interventions included
1. Eulogy. Write your own funeral speech including what you hope to be remembered for. It helps us focus on the goals and values that are most important to us.
2. Random acts of Kindness or altruism. It’s known that doing something good for another has a positive effect on wellbeing. Participants were encouraged to engage in some form of meaningful activity for others.
3. Mindfulness activities, exercises and training. Participants were introduced to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) by Dr Russ Harris who also spoke at the conference. (More on this another time).
4. Gratitude. Participants were encouraged to express appreciation and praise of others.
5. Forgiveness. This tends to be the aspect many of us avoid addressing in our lives, and can be scary to confront. We harbour resentments, and these can be like a cancer of the soul.
6. Reflection, review, renew. Participants were encouraged to pause and look at what was working or not.
Dr Grant openly acknowledged that while he has expected some improvement in self-reported wellbeing, he had not expected the substantial improvements in the biological markers of well-being.
Participants with high blood pressure and cholesterol experienced a substantial drop in readings; levels of immunity increased as did measures of resilience.
Most interestingly, the brain scans showed less activity, participants were calmer, and as Dr Grant said in the presentation “a quiet brain is a happy brain”. A calm, happy brain is less agitated, with its owner more at ease with themselves and others.
The participants reported an increase in satisfaction with life, and this affect remained at the 6 month follow-up after filming was over. That's excellent news about things we can all adopt relatively easily.
There was no single overall most effective intervention, and although Positive Psychology sounds like it focuses only on pleasant emotions, participants were encouraged to embrace the full range of human experience – not to avoid or shy away from more challenging emotions such as sadness, grief or anger, but to build a full, rich and meaningful life accepting these emotions as part of that richness.
One of the beauties of the series that the viewer was able to relate to the participants, there was no embarrassment, cringe-worthy moments or feeling superior. I would describe it as supportive, and encouraging. These were real people trying to improve their lives. No winners, no losers, just people very much like you and me.
So if you’re feeling a bit down, a couple of things you can do RIGHT NOW (yes really) are check out your diet, turn off the electronic devices when you go to bed (all of them!) and right now, stand up, and do some gentle exercise.
If you're interested, you can do many of the exercises presented in the programme using the materials on the web site. Here it is again!
I'm going to head off now and do 2 sets of step-ups before I begin getting dinner then I'll complete the Happiness questionairre. I wonder if I'll be game to share my score?
*If you're think you could be depressed please seek professional support - if you don't know where to start, try Beyond Blue (here), Lifeline (here) or your local GP (General Medical Practitioner).