The 5th Annual Bristol Happiness Lectures took place at St George’s Hall, Bristol, on the 18th May 2010. The primary topic was Positive Psychology Responses to Depression.. This is the first of two articles on the event, focusing on the keynote given by Miriam Akhtar. The second article will appear on Sunday and cover other aspects of the Bristol Happiness Lecture, especially the work by Dr Chris Johnstone, an addictions specialist.
Keynote speaker, Miriam Akhtar, described the Positive Emotion Kit (PE Kit) for countering depression. Miriam is a graduate of the University of East London MAPP program and a author and speaker on positive psychology topics. She based her keynote on personal experience of wet weather in the soul as well as Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. The main driver of transformation from ill-being to well-being, is the 3:1 Positivity Ratio (sometimes referred to as the ‘Losada Line’), a tipping point where people enter an upward spiral of development.
To boost mood naturally and experience more positive than negative emotion, people can form personal PE kits by selecting interventions from five essential evidence-based categories:
- Savor the Positive
- Practice Gratitude
- Develop Strengths
- Cultivate Connections
- Take Care of Body and Soul
Getting the Full Flavor of SavoringHaving defined savoring as “the capacity to attend to, appreciate and enhance the positive experiences in one’s life,” Miriam explored some of the options. She discussed savoring across different time dimensions such as positive reminiscence of the past, attentive experience of the present, and anticipation of the future. She talked about savoring something on the inside or on the outside. In the audience, we were invited to spend two minutes savoring a recent pleasurable experience. A warm wave of silence flowed through the hall as we sat back, closed our eyes, and relished our chosen moments.
There’s a long list of benefits associated with practicing gratitude, from increased life satisfaction, optimism, and enthusiasm to decreased depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Miriam outlined several simple techniques for practicing gratitude such as the Three Good Things exercise, regular journaling, and writing a gratitude letter. We were invited to spend a minute sharing three good things for the day with the person next to us. It took a few seconds for people to turn attention to positive things that had happened, but soon the hall was filled with energy as they enthusiastically described special people, things, or moments that brightened their days. Perhaps some people had truly significant events to describe, but my guess is that the majority were appreciating the ordinary things in life such a friendly smile from a stranger, a colleague’s joke, or a neighbor’s helping hand.
Miriam gave a simple anecdote to illustrate the value of identifying and playing to strengths. Her MAPP research during 2008-2009 was conducted with a group of adolescents with substance-abuse problems, some of whom were also young offenders. A 16-year old girl with a vague idea about becoming a youth worker was a heavy cannabis user. Her two older brothers were in prison, and the message she got from her friends was “Don’t bother, you’re going to end up in prison like your brothers.” Using the VIA-IS classification of character strengths, she identified hers as kindness, emotional intelligence and the capacity to love and be loved. This discovery inspired her. She became more motivated, started attending college more often, and got some work experience. She also gave up drugs because she realized they were getting in the way of her goals. This transformation happened as a result of identifying and playing to her strengths. As a strategy to shift from ill-being to well-being, nothing beats using strengths.
Cultivating ConnectionsThe fourth strategy in the PE Kit is simply about being social. Research shows that the most happy people are distinguished not by their ownership of material goods, but by having strong personal relationships. Relatedness being one of the three fundamental psychological needs identified by Deci and Ryan, making and maintaining connections with others is vital to mental well-being. Miriam described four different styles of communication and how only one, called Active Constructive Responding (ACR), is supportive of relationships, while the other three styles are corrosive. Miriam worked with her assistant, Rebecca, to give us an active demonstration of the four styles in action. She then invited the audience to reflect on which one we typically use and to practice ACR the next time someone told us some good news. The woman sitting next to me remarked that this was a revelation to her. She plans to pay more attention to her response style in future. “I can see it’s not difficult to do,” she said, “but it’s not like me. I need a little practice.”
Taking Care of Body and Soul
The final item in Miriam’s PE Kit was to value the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Having talked about mental well-being, we turned to the question of spirituality, not in the sense of a particular religion but simply the importance of connecting to something beyond ourselves. Research suggests that people who practice some form of spirituality tend to be happier and less vulnerable to depression. Perhaps that is because faith often provides a sense of meaning, or perhaps it is because belonging to a like-minded community meets the fundamental psychological need of relatedness. Research also shows that daily practice of mindful meditation can grow the seat of positive emotions in the brain in the left, pre-frontal cortex. Thus it increases our capacity to experience positive emotions.The importance of physical activity was the final element in the PE Kit. Perhaps the increase in youthful depression in the West is partly due to more sedentary lifestyles. Perhaps encouraging youth to engage in more physical play would have a beneficial effect on their mental well-being. Miriam cited one study which compared three groups of depressed individuals. One group took anti-depressant medication, one group exercised, and a final group combined exercise and medication. Six months later it was the group treated with exercise alone that had the lowest rate of relapse into depression.
Summing Up the PE Kit
One great strength of Miriam’s PE kit is that it is individual. The specific interventions that you choose to put in your PE Kit are the ones that suit you and work for you. They may be very different from the ones I put in my PE kit.
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Miriam Akhtar: Miriam Akhtar
Magnolia blossom courtesy of Edward Britton
Superhero Stamp courtesy of Thomas Duchnicki
Golden baby courtesy of Alyssa L. Miller
Keep Fit Be Happy courtesy of kevindooley
Hopscotch courtesy of TimWilson
Bridget, You might be interested in the following research on depression.
Thanks for a very useful and helpful article. I’ll be sharing this with clients and friends. Regarding the VIA-IS tool, is that available online? Or is it an actual testing tool that must be purchased?
What an absolutely lovely article!
Bridget, the content and how you conveyed it.
Miriam, the wonderful ideas. That’s a powerful example about the 16-year-old girl.
Bridget and Kathryn, the images.
This article is completely inspirational.
Bridget – my reading of the literature on depression would put “taking care of the body and soul” at the top of the hit parade.
It’s interesting that as we have become more sedentary that depression levels have rises.
And sleep seems to be overlooked??
Thanks for the link to those articles on depression, very helpful. I’ll make sure that Miriam sees them too as she’s writing a book on Positive Psychology and Depression at the moment.
Yes the VIA-IS is available online for free here: http://www.viacharacter.org/VIASurvey/tabid/55/Default.aspx.
You have to register, but don’t worry, this is for research purposes so you’re not going to get indundated with spam. The full VIA-IS is 240 questions and takes about 30 minutes to complete. Personally I’d set aside the time to do this, rather than opt for the Brief version. You receive a report straight away, showing your strengths in order.
Or you can pay a little extra (currently $40 or $20 for students) to have an interpretative report which gives you exercises to do and so on. You’ll see further information about that on the same page.
Hopefully Miriam will share more on PPND about her research project with these disaffected young people, and the success she had with using simple Positive Psychology techniques like those she included in the PE Kit. It was a real turning point for them.
Also I’d like to thank Kathryn too for her expert editing and for adding the extra images, they really make a difference, thanks!
Hi again oz
Yes you’re right about various simple things being overlooked, like sleep, nutrition and exercise. But there hasn’t been much in the media over here in the UK about the importance of good nutrition for mental health. Some years ago I attended a well-being conference run by the Open University, and had the good fortune to hear Bernard Gesch (Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford)speak on this topic. It was a real eye-opener. Since then I have been much more cautious about what my family eats.
The subject of poor sleep was in the press recently though, in relation to young children watching TV etc till all hours and the consequent effect on development. British parents seem to be deaf to the argument though.
And the same with physical exercise. It used to play a far greater role in the school curriculum than it does now. So I agree with you that we’re far too sedentary and that simply changing this would have a positive impact on mental well-being.
Who knows, if we ate more healthily, exercised more and slept better, maybe there would be no need for any psychological intervention.
I agree with your last statement.
Nutrition, exercise and sleep are the most powerful PP interventions around.
Bridget, I love your last statement in that comment too (may have to quote you at some point!) And could be a good topic for your next article!
Ah, yes, about the “ate more healthily…”
But Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar cites research that 80% of the American public has a pretty good understanding of the elements of a healthy lifestyle, but something closer to 20% actually follow one. I don’t think that is exclusively an American state of affairs.
So when people know what to do but don’t do it, what then? Perhaps that’s where positive psychology ideas come in — for example, getting over learned helplessness (“I have tried so many times to lose weight and it just doesn’t work”), establishing a growth mindset rather than a fixed one (“That person who looks so graceful and accomplished at the gym wasn’t born that way. She got there by practice and I can too”), intentionally associating positive emotion with good behaviors (“I found a gym where people are friendly and I enjoy listening to their stories”) and so on.
Marie-Josee has several articles linking positive psychology to healthy habits, and there’s always Emiliya Zhivotoskaya’s article about relationship to food.
Bridget, I agree with oz and Jeremy’s comment: really like your last sentence.
Kathryn, those are three great examples! It’s funny that sometimes something so simple–like the words related to a growth mindset or to positive emotions–can make such a large difference.
Oz, Jeremy, Kathryn, Senia
One thing I think is missing from a lot of debate about PP and its various interventions is the importance of self-regulation. It’s one of the many paradoxes about PP which fascinates me, that happiness is considered such a facile subject by many and not worthy of scientific research, yet in reality it requires a great deal of discipline that many people seem unwilling to exert. You could say that happiness is about doing not being.
Perhaps we need more emphasis on how to create and maintain self-control? Though somehow I can’t imagine people queuing up for a workshop on that subject… ;->
That’s a great write-up of this year’s Happiness Lectures, gratitude to Bridget!
I agree with you Oz on your reflections on the physical interventions being so powerful.
I use physical interventions as a first-aid kit for the times when it seems impossible to conjure up a positive thought or emotion. What I love about physical activity (walking and dancing in my case) is the natural lift in mood that ensues which then makes it easier to use some of the psychological interventions. With clients I always address the body-mind connection early on.
Thanks for the link too – as well as writing more on this subject I am beginning a PhD in positive psychology for depression at the University of Bath next academic year.
Bridget – at last someone gets its. It’s all about doing – you can’t think your way to happiness. For example with strengths you do something with your top 5 – I suspect it really doesn’t matter whether its your top 5 or not.
Also agree with self regulation – by the way heart rate variability is a measure of self regulation – is used as such in mainstream psychology. And yes people line up for these workshops – its called emotion intelligence. Research shows that emotional management is the key facet in EI.
Miriam, yep exercise is king.
you might be interested in HRV as part of your research on depression.
You might be also interested in this video (excuse the plug for my product)
By the way my partner is also a Miriam
Not sure I understand your point about self-regulation and emotional intelligence. Can you explain that a bit further please?
EI is broken down into a number of facets – gneerally identifying, using and and managing emotions. Self regulation is one of the key skills that underlies emotional management.
Hi again Oz
Thanks – then perhaps we are talking at cross-purposes. I was referring to simple self-discipline as a layperson would understand it, e.g. the type needed to stick to a diet or exercise regime. It must be possible for someone to be very well-controlled in either of those areas, and at the same time lack emotional intelligence…
Which just goes to show the importance of defining terminology!