Miriam Akhtar, MAPP from the University of East London, runs Positive Psychology Training, which provides courses, coaching, and communication in the science. Miriam is the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and the co-producer of The Happiness Training Plan. Twitter: @pospsychologist. Full bio.
Miriam's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.
Seven years ago as I was going through the MAPP at the University of East London, I had a distinct sense that there were two types of positive psychologists: the researchers and the practitioners. I was definitely in the latter camp. The ‘A’ in my degree title is important. We not only acquire knowledge, but we also apply it, taking the tools off campus and into communities.Community Learning
Three years later I came across the pioneering Happy City Initiative at the Bristol Happiness Lectures and recognized that we shared a common goal. One of the things I’m most passionate about is broadening the approach to mental health and in particular depression recovery to raise awareness of positive psychology interventions as evidence-based self-help.
I was in the process of writing Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and was keen to translate the tools into a community program of simple actions that could be used by anyone, regardless of age, background or nationality, to raise and recover their well-being. Here was an opportunity to collaborate and take to scale what I was doing on a one-to-one basis in my coaching practice.
Adopting the growth mindset which has proved to be essential to any process of innovation so that you learn rather than label what happens as success or failure (thank you Carol Dweck), we put together the Happiness Habits program and tested it with groups as diverse as refugee parents in an inner-city school, charity volunteers, and professionals working in health and education.
Working with a group of parents, many of whom had English as a 2nd, 3rd or 4th language was fascinating as it showed how the concepts of love, strengths, and well-being cut across cultures. Happiness is a universal language.Eight Happiness Habits
After several iterations we settled on 8 habits of happiness delivered in 8 weekly sessions. We called them habits because it takes practice to make these actions something you do automatically. We chose 8 weeks to follow the model of mindfulness programs, allowing adequate time for positive changes to occur.
The beauty of a community program is that you have the power of social contagion on your side. By teaching a group the habits of happiness, not only can they share those tools with friends and family, but as their well-being increases it also has a beneficial effect on other people as happiness spreads to up to 3 degrees of separation, as Christakis and Fowler have demonstrated. So you get the ripple effect of increasing and expanding well-being and thus building individual and community resilience.
Here are the 8 habits of happiness we teach in the program.
- Savor Positive Experiences. This is about deepening the enjoyment of life’s good stuff so that you squeeze all the juice out of a positive experience.
- Practice Gratitude. Appreciating what’s good in life and what’s going well so that you overcome the mind’s negativity bias which makes us notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right.
- Use your Strengths. Identifying and playing to your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses – a great way to build well-being and reduce symptoms of depression.
- Live Life with Meaning & Purpose. Cultivating the deeper form of happiness that give you a sense of fulfilment.
- Nurture Relationships. Our connections to others are the primary source of happiness which is precisely why they need tender loving care.
- Learn Optimism. Optimism is psychological self-defence, thinking strategies that can protect you from the pessimistic thinking that drags your mood down.
- Build your Resilience. The good news is that resilience is ‘ordinary magic’ there are many everyday things that help you bounce back from difficulty.
- Positive Directions. Working towards a goal gives you a sense of progress and achievement.
Stories about Impact
We have pulled together a summary of the ways that practicing the happiness habits can benefit individuals, organizations, and communities. The following stories are anecdotal, to be sure, but indicate directions for studying impact.
One of our participants last year experienced a relationship break-up mid-way through the course. She was surprised to find herself coping much better with the end of the relationship and put it down to the cushion of resilience that she’d been building up. Cultivating positive emotion had helped protect her from the heartache that comes with the end of a relationship.
“The benefit that we’ve been deriving from our Monday sessions has been priceless! Thank you so much for all the effort you go to. I would be happy to come the next time you run this. Compared to one on one therapy which costs a fortune this is far more engaging and useful in my opinion as you feel an equal participant rather than a client /victim. Keep up the fantastic work. ”
The husband of one of the participants was having a hard time with his business in the recession. His wife shared some of the simple optimism tools and helped him to challenge the pessimism that was threatening to drag him down. This helped him find the energy and motivation to get his business back on track.
During the time that we were running the Happiness Habits with parents in a primary school, 3 of their children were named as ‘superkids’ of the week, a gold star for achievement and good behavior.
Author’s Note: This autumn we’re running the program again as an evening class open to all that can come to our doors. Happy Mondays runs from September 30th to November 18th in Bristol. Come and join us if you’re in the West Country, UK! Early bird pricing ends September 17. Email us for further information.
The Happiness Habits is part of a package of Happy City interventions to be made available to other cities worldwide. If you are interested in receiving the training in your city, please get in touch.
Akhtar, M. (2012). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-Help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength and Well-Being. London: Watkins. Review by Laura L. C. Johnson.
Akhtar, M. (2012). Positive Psychology Interventions with Depression. Positive Psychology News.
Christakis, N.A. & Fowler. J H. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227-238.