Happiness, Happiness….a practical take on psychology and wellbeing

Jim McManus

Jim McManus is a Chartered Psychologist, Chartered Scientist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He is Editor of Catholics in Healthcare blog

Happiness has been a concern of psychology and public policy since Seligman’s work at least, and the development of new orientations in psychology studying not human problems, but human thriving is just one of the remarkable signs that psychology as a field of science is flourishing. It’s an exciting time to be a psychologist as we see applications of psychology range from long term illness to organizational innovation, child development and human happiness.

The field of psychology has recently seen the emergence of sub-fields like Community Psychology, Positive Psychology and other specialisms, working on human strengths and human flourishing…so seeking strengthen, not problematize, ordinary lives.

The advent of scientifically sound research on this has given impetus to policy developments at national and international level that what we need to do as health systems and communities is help people thrive. With this comes the well-researched insight that population mental wellbeing and resilience is important. This has seen expressions in the last few years (all with good evidence base) ranging from the 5 ways to wellbeing (New Economics Foundation) to the recent Government Strategy no health without mental health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists no health without public mental health.

Doing this practically can often seem to be easier said than done, but there have been a number of practical initiatives run in local areas seeking to put these concepts into practice. Positive Psychology is taking off, and the accredited mental health first aid movement is just one example of how people can turn these insights into a series of programmes. Catholics have a series of demonstration projects and initiatives on mental health, wellbeing and dementia in the Catholic Mental Health Project

But now comes a timely and sensible intervention for faith communities. John Bingham, writing in the news and religion section of today’s Daily Telegraph, tells the story of how Livability, the disability charity with a Christian ethos, is busy rolling out a “happiness” course in parishes and churches across the Country.

Bingham’s piece says “The so-called “Happiness Course” combines basic principles of secular popular psychology with ideas such as forgiveness and gratitude, promoted for centuries by Christianity. It is based on the principle that applying simple Biblical ideas such as “counting your blessings” or forgiving enemies could actively improve people’s psychological well-being.”

In fact, this is not secular popular psychology. This course has links to well researched psychological insight. What is different about positive psychology and the psychology of happiness is that there has been a significant impetus to popularize it while, for the most part, keeping faith with the underlying science.

Positive Psychology,  some of whose  insights the Livability course seems to derive from, is defined by the  Positive Psychology Center at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania as “the  scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

The interesting thing is that Livability are synthesising faith concepts about what makes a healthy and happy life with sound scientific psychology, and finding not only that there is no conflict but that they work well together.

This too has a practical value well-grounded in research. Studies of organizational culture and take-up of health messages show that when people can relate scientifically sound messages to their own belief systems, there is more likelihood the messages will be seen to be salient and the messages will not only be taken up but sustained.

The Livability course is a neat innovation in the field of practical or pastoral theology, and an equally neat innovation in the field of public mental health.

We need to see more of this.

Some useful links

http://www.livability.org.uk/

http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10064228/Archbishops-daughter-spearheads-drive-to-teach-happiness-in-churches.html

http://www.mentalhealthproject.co.uk/

http://positivepsychology.org.uk/

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