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
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