Making Australia Happy, a three-part series, was screened on Australian television last month. It is creating lots of positive reactions, like this comment, “There’s a great deal of buzz around the water cooler on Tuesday mornings!” Also overheard at a party last weekend were the questions, “Have you seen that show about happiness? Isn’t it fantastic?”
What Is It All About?
“Eight volunteers. Three experts. Eight weeks. One vision: in a groundbreaking experiment, the science of positive psychology is put to the test – what does it take to make Australia happy. Eight unhappy people offer themselves up to science – their brains are scanned, their lives examined, their saliva swabbed and their blood tested. Can they improve their happiness and wellbeing in eight weeks? This is not self-help TV. There’s no tree hugging, stargazing or standing in circles singing kumbaya. It’s an opportunity for eight ordinary Australians to road test the new science of happiness. And to prove that it works.” (From the Web site for the show and the ABC Facebook page)
The eight volunteers, unknown to each other, lived in Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney. They represented a range of ages, backgrounds, and life circumstances, but they shared the desire to get happy. After screening for clinical depression and mental health issues, the eight individuals selected were relatively unhappy but ready for change.
The Experts and their Interventions
It was wonderful to see three experts working together to implement a range of interventions covering mind, body, and spirit.
Dr Tony Grant, a coaching psychologist and team leader, implemented a range of positive psychology activities including random acts of kindness, altruism, writing one’s eulogy, VIA strengths, gratitude, forgiveness and building social networks.
- Dr Russ Harris, a leading expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, implemented mindfulness exercises.
- Anna-Louise Bouvier, a leading physiotherapist, was recruited to look after the body basics – sleep, diet and exercise.
- Dr Craig Hassed, an invited guest, appeared in Episode 3 to discuss the biological measures.
Before, during, and after the series, the participants completed happiness questionnaires, some of which are on the ABC website, including the Happy 100 Index. Biological data was taken such as cortisol, melatonin, and immunoglobin. MEG brain scans were conducted.
Good news! Yes, the show has a happy ending. Improvements were found on all physical and psychological measures. The producers and the experts were particularly excited that the biological data supported the subjective data: blood samples don’t lie.
The show demonstrated that interventions need to be tailored to the person, that is, aligned to their intrinsic needs. Some interventions did not work as effectively for some as they did for others. In a recent radio interview, Tony Grant mentioned that lots of mindfulness seemed to be the key for many of the participants. It’s also important to note that the coaching and support provided by the experts underpinned the interventions, and proved to be a strong thread throughout the series and ensures that the eight participants were not left to fend for themselves. However, comments on the website indicate that viewers were implementing the activities at home without access to the experts, and experienced subjective increases in levels of happiness.
The Happy Heiress – a view from the Producer
The series was produced by Jennifer Cummins, principal of Heiress Films, a boutique factual and documentary company that specializes in personal stories.
I spoke to Jennifer last month to gain some of her thoughts and insights. She began exploring the idea of a TV show about happiness over two years ago. She is not a believer in groundless fluffy self-help: “I had a narrow view of this thing called happiness, until I learned about the science and research and discovered there is a credible body of evidence.”
And so began her journey to find a theme, a group of people to make happy, and a team of experts to implement happiness activities. In selecting the experts to guide the volunteers through the interventions, the TV crew were most interested in people who were respected, could communicate, were empathetic, and could easily build rapport. This is what was achieved: there was a healthy relationship between the eight participants and the experts.
Jennifer and her team are very pleased with the response to the series. The reviews are great, and the viewing audience loves the rawness and courage of the participants with their genuine and honest reactions. The on-line response via the website and the Facebook page is far greater than anticipated, with the Facebook page gathering a greater following than any other ABC-TV Facebook page. The ABC has never seen such a response to a show, with over 36,000 registered on the website as of mid November. More than 38,000 Happy 100 Index tests have been taken. This is the highest registration rate of any ABC-TV tie-in website. The ABC server broke down twice on the night of the first episode!
Jennifer shared a wonderful story: A pregnant woman was trying to cross a busy Sydney street on a very rainy day. A viewer of the show, influenced by the acts of kindness intervention, stopped to help her. This viewer had not deliberately set out that day to perform random acts of kindness. However, the show had brought this idea to the forefront of his consciousness. Normally a very busy person, this viewer might have passed by in a rush, not noticing the pregnant woman and her predicament. The viewer stopped and helped. This story is not only about kindness. It also demonstrates that our blocks to creating happiness for ourselves and others may be that we’re often too busy and too distracted.
Jennifer told me she had an incredibly hard working crew, and she could not have made the series without them.
Where do we go from here? This show has given a boost to the serious subject of happiness, and it’s hoped that this show will continue to reach into all homes for some time to come. The show and people’s reactions show how fields such as positive psychology, mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are still not widely understood or known.
For more information, see the show’s website.
“Making Australia Happy” DVD will be available in January 2011
Books by the Experts:
Bouvier, A. L. & Fleming, J. (2010). The Feel Good Body: 7 Steps to Easing Aches and Looking Great. HarperCollinsAU. (Links to the Kindle version).
Grant, A. M. & Greene, J. (2003). Coach Yourself: Make Real Change in Your Life.
Grant, A. M. & Leigh, A. (2010). The 8 Steps to Happiness. Victory Books.
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Trumpeter Press.
Hassed, C. (2008). Essence of Health. Random House Australia.
Photos and screen shots taken by Amanda Horne