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
Amanda – I have to say it looks like mindfulness is the critical dimension.
I had a laugh when I read Russ Harris’s book the happiness trap. His website claims that he doesn’t teach meditation but then you read his book and find that focused breathing is a focus. Sounds like meditation to me. A couple of my articles on PPND explain why breathing is so important.
I haven’t watched the program (no TV) but I heard a number of watercooler conversations that bagged the program suggesting that it was too light. Just goes to show that we hear what we want to hear
I also have to wonder how important the PP interventions were when compared to the hygiene factors such as sleep, nutrition and mindfulness – yes I do include mindfulness as a hygiene factor
At the end of the day the program really didn’t prove much – no control in place.
Perhaps the control should have been the hygeine factors.
Amanda, I just watched the program on the web. There was a lot of peak end theory being applied. I would love to know what their happiness levels are like in 12 months time.
The whole thing made for great television but quite ordinary science. It tapped into a huge placebo effect.
And was it the exercise, nutrition and sleep that made the biggest difference.
I’m reminded of Albert Bandura saying that psychologists are very poor at social diffusion of what they know.
He also suggested stories as a good social diffusion mechanism — stories that included people who were performing the behavior in question, people who were not, and people in transition. This show seems to have some of those qualities. So maybe it serves a different purpose than a well-controlled research study.
Amanda, I always enjoy reading your articles. You have a gift for taking a topic and translating what’s relevant/practical. So what if there was a “huge placebo effect” and “ordinary science” as Oz says. This is television, not a study that is going to get written up in an academic journal. 40% of our happiness can be determined by intentional activity — the exercises/interventions these 8 people performed are just that. Go Australia! When’s the US show going to air?
Wayne, Kathryn and Margaret
I think that it is inevitable that when months (years if you include the preliminary research) is condensed into three hours of viewable television for a broad audience there will be much to discuss and critique, praise and criticise.
Yes, mindfulness might be ‘the thing’ but so could dancing, or was it the one-on-one support each of the participants received? Or was it social support?
What is encouraging is that the producers referred to fields (mindfulness, meditation, ACT, Positive Psychology, coaching etc) that presents viewers with the possibility of further investigation. Should they do so they would discover a wide world of practices and research from which they could decide what’s best for them. This would be a good thing.
Amanda – you’re right. Another huge bias was having a personal coach – the average punter can’t afford a coach. The whole thing could be one big “do do bird” effect.
Again to reiterate – great television – but like so much in the way of reality television it is extremely contived and very different from life.
But then perhaps everyday life doesn’t make great television.
THanks for this interesting article. I look forward to checking out the website.
What “gets” me is that the program was made and it drew a huge audience. Yes, there might have been shortcomings, but it sounds like overall they did a very respectable job presenting the science and keeping it legitimate.
Oz’s notion that “perhaps everyday life doesn’t make great television” is a controversial statement. It sounds like this “everyday life” (or this version of “reality tv”) got people talking in a good way about things they can do to improve their lives. When I compare that to “The Jersey Shore” (an MTV reality show here in the US), I think to myself, “Well, at least some TV executives somewhere are trying to do right by us, rather than continuing us down the slippery slope to YUCK.”
Thanks for bringing the show to our attention. I look forward to watching it and hope, like Margaret, that someday soon an American version will appear!
Really excited to see the ongoing work in this area. And looking forward to being a part of the conversation in May 2011, when I’ll be facilitating Positive Psychology continuind ed workshops across Australia!
I have just finished reading a review of a TV program called the “House of food obsessives” by Australia’s Dr Happy – yes I’m embarrassed to say we have one.
The respected critic, Jim Schemberi, says “The program is so light in content that it almost floats away before your eyes. There’s no drama, tension, or insight into anything other than how similar SBS is to the ABC (the two public TV networks in oz)in its unparalleled ability to sqander huge amounts of effoirt, energy and production resources on a two part program that could have been easily boiled down into a snappy half hour (thinking here of Making Australia happy, Aunty’s (the ABC) painful pop psychology adventure.”
Pop psychologists like Tony Grant and Timothy Sharp really do PP a huge disservice