The Real Secret is a different kind of self help. We debunk the empty promises of so many books and DVDs and bring you a simple, sensible approach to real life fulfillment. We don't believe you can achieve happiness, or anything else, by simply wishing for, thinking about or visualising it. Our book - and this blog - takes only the best of what really works and turns it into a positive, practical 12-step programme that will enable you to take control of your life and raise your happiness levels.

* Learn Happiness Habits from Positive Psychology * Tame your Fear with Cutting Edge Neuroscience * Control your Time and Money like an Entrepreneur * Build Better Relationships through one Tested Technique

The Real Secret is simple, sensible, scientifically supported self help
by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Why we need to forgive...and move on

“Resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Nelson Mandela

We have all been badly hurt, at some time or another, by the things that other people have said or done to us. And in turn we have all said or done things to other people which have caused great hurt to them. We are all culpable. Some of the hurts we have caused, or suffered, may be hidden from us. Some of the worst hurts are often those which we know about and feel responsible for. Forgiving others for what they have done to us is often easier than forgiving ourselves.

Forgiving isn't the same as forgetting what happened to you. Whatever hurt or offended you, or whatever hurt and offense you may have caused another, may always remain a part of your life. But forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, more positive parts of your life. Forgiveness also doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimise or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person, including yourself, without excusing the act.

The feelings of hurt – anger, sadness, confusion – may start out small, but if you don't deal with them, they can take over and become all encompassing. Feelings of resentment can turn to hostility especially when you can't stop yourself replaying the original action or event. When this happens you can find yourself swallowed up by bitterness or guilt. You feel trapped and often can't see a way out. The problem is that when we hold on to this bitterness or guilt, every other area of our lives can suffer. Our lives may be so wrapped up in the past wrong that we can't enjoy the present. It's we who pay the price, over and over and over again.

“Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us.”
 Marcus Aurelius (121-180)

Forgiveness can be incredibly difficult and it can take time. It may be particularly hard to forgive someone who doesn't admit wrong or to ask for forgiveness from someone who won't acknowledge that they have been hurt, but remember that the key benefits –  the real secrets - of forgiveness are for you. You can't make someone else forgive you or accept your forgiveness, but you can do something about how you deal with the situation.

The first crucially important step is to recognise the detrimental effects of sustained anger, hurt, or guilt on your well being. Another is to recognise the benefits – to yourself – of forgiveness. In the end we all need to stop being the victim of the original hurt and release its power over us, which is why the quote from South African poet Mayflower Archipelago (see below) is so instructive. Feeling resentment about what some one else has done to us, can sometimes be an excuse for all that is wrong in our lives. There is a real danger that we end up wallowing in our own self-pity.

So we need to forgive. How do we do that? In The Real Secret book we introduce a five step programme developed by psychologist Everett Worthington which we encourage readers to develop into a habit whenever they feel resentment and upset over past as well as present hurts. Below are the bare bones of this approach - easily remembered in the acronym REACH.

Recall the hurt as objectively as possible. Avoid wallowing in self-pity or thinking of the other person as evil.

Empathise with the person who hurt you and try to see it from their perspective. Remember that people often hurt innocents when they themselves feel threatened; that people who hurt are often in a state of fear, worry and hurt themselves. Remember the situation and think about what effect that may have had on the behaviour of the other person; remember that often we lash out without knowing that we are doing it.

Altruism. Recall when you were once forgiven and try to rise above the hurt and vengeance.

Commit yourself to forgiveness. If appropriate, approach the person who you have hurt and ask to be forgiven. Remember, the person may not wish to be approached and any contact may further the insult. You need to be sensitive and decide what would be in the best interests of the other person. The other person may not be ready to forgive you or they may no longer be alive or contactable – if this is the case then all you can do is forgive yourself. Truly forgive yourself – with all your heart and all your mind. If some one else caused hurt to you and shows no sign of recognition or sorrow then all that you can do is forgive them. This is most likely the hardest step, but once taken the relief will feel enormous.

Hold on to forgiveness. When the hurt comes up, don't ruminate on it. Focus on forgiveness.
“If you are carrying the burden of hate, anger, pain, bitterness over what someone has done to you, I ask you what are you gaining from this state, what are the benefits? What are the losses, what are the missed opportunities you have experienced from this state of living? Have compassion for yourself and put that burden down, and feel the lightness of being and see the difference.”
Mayflower Archipelago, Black* South African writer and poet

Posted by Annabel


Why doesn’t money make you happier?

We’ve all been told a million times that having a lot of money won’t make you happy - or no happier, that is, than having just enough money. After enough (to keep the wolves from the door, the rent paid, and some honey in the cupboard), money seems not to make much difference to levels of happiness at all. Moreover, research has shown that, in many cases, rich people seem to be less happy.

"Although gold dust is precious, when it gets in your eyes it obscure your vision.!
His-Tang Chih Tsang, Zen Master (735-814)

So why doesn't having more money make us happier? New research by Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues* suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how rich people lose touch with their ability to truly appreciate or savour life's pleasures.

Savouring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences: taking time to experience the wonderful taste of a fresh apple, for example, or the beauty of the sky at night, or the way a good joke can make you crack up so your whole body ripples. Being aware of the effect of these good things and taking the time to appreciate them, however minor they might be, is what will turn an ordinary day into a day in which a number of wonderful things happened to you. Being aware of, and appreciating, the small delights of life is what makes people happier, not money. And is also why the habit of recalling Three Good Things (Happiness Habit No. 6) in our Habits of Happiness Experiment works.

So why, then, don't rich people savour these things, if it feels so good?
It's obviously not for a lack of delightful things because rich people probably have easier access to the finer things in life, as well as more time to savour them (I’m obviously thinking of gourmet restaurants and African sunsets here). The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes whenever you want, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more everyday pleasures, like the smell of a sausage in the pan cooked by a friend or the bargain you got on Ebay.

"He who is richest is content with least, for content is the wealth of nature."
Socrates (469 - 399 BC)

When you have more than enough money to buy whatever it is you think you want, that want has lost all its flavour - it’s just another thing you can have. Wanting something implies the possibility of not getting it, surely. But if you know you can have whatever you want, then the desire, as well as the pleasure of getting it, has been diminished.  

So that’s why having more than ‘enough’ money won't make you happier, and can also be bad for you.

One way rich people can offset this disadvantage is using their money for the good of others. Philanthropy has its rewards - as you can find out from reading about Happiness Habit No 4, Spreading Happiness.

Quoidbach, J., et al.,(2010) Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science, 21, 759-763

Posted by Annabel


Why we always blame other people

Talking of irritation (well I was yesterday), it never fails to amaze me just how annoying other people are. Sartre called other people hell. I call other people stupid, lazy, inconsiderate, pretentious, angry, useless, and arrogant. Everything I am not.

This isn’t a good start from a writer of self help books.

Bear with me.

I am also other people.

In social psychological terms this kind of labelling is called the Fundamental Attribution Error. This states that when we look at the behaviour of other people we tend to blame their behaviour on personality shortcomings. When we explain our own similar behaviour it’s always the fault of things outside of our control - the situation in which we find ourselves.

For example, if we see someone shouting angrily at a train that just departed we tend to assume they are ‘a very angry person’. But when we ourselves shout angrily at a train we just missed, it’s because the train left earlier than scheduled, the bus to the train was late, the timetable was wrong - typical British Rail incompetence - the station clock was fast - ditto - and I hate my boss because she just passed me over for promotion. Nothing to do with me at all. Anyone, after the day I just had would get upset when the last train home just left.

Whilst I am clearly a victim of circumstances, everyone else has some kind of personality disorder.

I like the fundamental attribution error.

But I also think we should give other people a little more slack when it comes to making judgements about their behaviour. 

"Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us."
Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180)
Even if none of it's your fault, but you're still feeling stressed and angry, take 15 minutes to relax with our free Relaxation Audio. Conscious physical relaxation has very good effects on physical and mental health, sleep, stress levels - and even the annoyance caused entirely by other people.

We all get overly stressed and angry at other people when we are less than happy ourselves - but it's often hard to know how to make changes for yourself. By following the Steps of The Real Secret, or identifying those which relate to your situation, you can raise your personal happiness levels, which will impact on those around you at work and at home as well as the anonymous people you come into contact with daily. You can also learn how to listen better (empathic listening), improve relationships at work and at home, as well as build confidence and deal with difficult people. It is available in paperback and kindle on and Amazon. com

Posted by Annabel


How to deal with noisy neighbours

My noisy neighbours are driving me insane. Why do some people have to be so loud? At home, on the train, in the supermarket, to their children. And doesn’t it just irritate the hell out of you when people send emails sprinkled with a million exclamation marks!!! With some words also in BOLD!!!

It’s like everyone is shouting. Please stop shouting at me. I’m a very quiet person. I don’t like noise that isn’t my own (so selfish then, as well).

I have this theory about how to deal with minor irritations. And it isn’t what you’ll find in most self-help books. Most self help authors suggest that the best way to deal with the potential build-up of anger that can all too often arise from minor irritations is to let it out. Punch a bag or a pillow. Imagine the pillow is the person that is annoying you. This works, apparently, because you’ll be violent to a pillow and not to yourself by holding in all that irritation. This is the "catharsis hypothesis" - the notion that it’s better to vent your anger than keep it bottled up.

Well, I just don’t agree. Not least because I’m also a non-violent (quiet, selfish) person. I really don’t want to punch even the idea of a person. It’s still violence to me.
I also never really understood the metaphor of bottling things up, but apparently if you do let things bottle up then one day, and soon, you’ll explode with the pressure of it all. What began as a minor irritation will eventually release itself in the form an aggressive rage. So beware!!! 

I really do think this is a rubbish hypothesis and hypothesis is all it is because I can’t find a scrap of evidence to support it. I looked all morning. 

What I did find was some fine research by Brad Bushman* which indicates that venting actually makes things worse. Rather than punching pillows, Bushman suggests doing something incompatible with anger, such as reading or listening to music. As he remarks, this won’t in any way address the cause of the irritation but it will leave you in a better state to do so.

This makes sense to me.

So what do I do when I become irritated by other peoples inconsiderate behaviour? Well, I become more considerate. Both towards the source of the irritation and towards myself.

I take care not to become irritated in the first place because I learnt early on not to wage war with the outside world on inconsequential things, and instead I now turn my attention inward towards myself. This simple shift of attention has changed how I experience my world, including all the outside irritations that used to drive me insane. As a result I am now more content and a whole lot more tolerant.

This is what I do:
  • When an irritating event occurs I stop and breathe
  • I pay attention to how I am feeling and what I am thinking. This allows me to recognise how my old habits work so that they now no longer control me.
  • I become aware of myself.
  • I then think of the people I love the most and I pour this love onto my irritation much as you would put balm on a physical wound.
  • I repeat these steps every time I face a difficulty
There is a space of time between what irritates you and your response. Don’t waste your precious feelings getting irritated. Save them for what really matters.

As far as noisy neighbours go - make friends with them. It’s always easier to ask friends to quieten down. The alternative is the prospect of having to live next door to people who end up loathing you, as much as you end up loathing them - not an all round good solution.

*Bushman, B, (2002) Does venting anger feed or extinquish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding’, Personality and Social psychology Bulletin, : 724-731

More advice on managing stress and dealing with difficult people in The Real Secret - available on and

Posted by Annabel


Three Good Things - Happiness Habit No.6

Research has shown that about 50% of our happiness is a result of genetics and about 10% can be accounted for by circumstances.That leaves 40% which is a direct result of our behaviour and ways of thinking that can be influenced*

That’s a significant amount of our happiness that we can do something about. The question, of course, is how to go about improving our happiness levels, and more importantly, improving them so that they last, and become a part of our overall outlook and experience of life.

Dr Martin Seligman, leading light of Positive Psychology, and his research team have scientifically tested some hundred “interventions” claiming to improve happiness. They found that recalling Three Good Things that happened that day increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months after the single week of testing. If participants actively continued the exercise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week period, it appeared to keep raising happiness month by month after the first week.

Habit 6 in our Happiness Habits Experiment asks you to write down each evening, three things that went well that day; and reasons – preferably to do with you – why they went well. As you write them down, recall and relive the positive feelings you had as they were happening. If it works for you, keep doing it every day beyond the initial seven – or as often as you remember. If you get into the habit of writing Three Good Things twice a week for the rest of the year, you’ll have clocked up nearly Three Hundred Good Things that have happened to you.

Initial responses from participants in our experiment who adopted this habit have reported positively although many also commented that they found it a chore to have to write the three good things down. Whilst research has shown that writing increases the effectiveness of this habit, if you find it a chore then simply think of three good things that have happened during the day. I do this as I get ready to go to bed and find it also helps with getting to sleep.

So why does the habit of Three Good Things work?

There is a lot more research now on the way in which even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave their mark on your brain and affect how you experience life. The more positive the thoughts and feelings you have, the happier you will become. Unfortunately, it appears that our brains preferentially register, store and recall unpleasant experiences over positive experiences; even when positive experiences outnumber the negative. And this in turn can, and does, lead to unhappiness. One way to override this is to foster positive experiences by paying special attention to the good things that happen to us, or that we see happen around us.

You need to actively search out for and notice the good things, particularly the little things that we often take for granted: the way children seem to laugh and play whenever they have the chance, the way the postman always says hello when you bump into him, the warmth of the sun - to name a few that I just noticed. It’s the little things that matter - we aren’t talking about big events. 

And when you alight upon a pleasant experience then it’s important to savour it. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the stronger the trace in memory. So if something good happens, however small, let the positive feeling it brings wash over you and then store it for later use.

Paying special attention to the good in your life is not about denying the hard things or putting a superficial gloss on things. It’s about recognising the need for balance. Given our brains preference for paying attention to negative experiences, positive experiences need all the help they can get.

'Happiness is round, sadness is square'  
 from the spanish 'Tristeza nao tem fim, felicidade sim', suggesting that
Happiness rolls away, but sadness stays

*Lyubomirsky,Sonya. The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Press, 2007)

Posted by Annabel


Affirmations For Self Esteem - Happiness Habit No. 5

Do you have opinions and beliefs about yourself and the world in general that you consider to be “fact” and set in stone?

Well, think again.

Our core attitudes and values are simply learned thought patterns that we have developed since childhood. Thoughts are neurological pathways in our brain and the more frequently we think them, the deeper we cut the pathways. “Right” or “wrong” is an inappropriate way to assess them. It is more the case that, while many of our thought patterns continue to work well for us, others are working against us because we ourselves, our conditions or environment, have changed. They are dysfunctional and sabotage our ability to be happy and achieve what we want.

"We all have mental habits, and once they are set, they are as hard
to break as stopping smoking or biting your fingernails.”
Frank Pajares, Educational Psychologist

Throughout your lifetime, other people – and you yourself – have fed you negative messages about yourself, sometimes in words, other times by implication; sometimes on purpose, other times by accident. The most destructive of these are the ones that have been reinforced by repetition of someone else’s opinion, by circumstances that seem to validate this view of you, through negative comparisons to other people or your own continual acceptance of these limiting beliefs.

“Low self-esteem is like driving through life with the hand-break on”
Maxwell Maltz, writer (1899-1975)

These negative views of yourself affect your ability to be happy, to enjoy life and be at ease with yourself, even when you’re not consciously aware of holding them. They transmit themselves to other people via your body language, your turn of phrase, your attitude and your whole approach to life; they hold you back from enjoying good experiences, strong relationships and positive developments.

Would you purposely let a child of yours constantly hear yours or others’ negative thoughts about them? Hopefully not, because you wouldn’t want these ideas to enter their belief system, leading them to internalise a poor self-image. But, consciously or unconsciously, you are repeating these harmful messages back to your own mind. After all, whose ears are the first to hear the words you speak or even think?

Exactly – yours.

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude."
Maya Angelou, writer

Research into self-efficacy and resilience demonstrates that it is never too late to recover from low self esteem. One key is to avoid self-defeating assumptions. If you lose a job or a partner leaves you, it is important not to internalise the rejection and assume you’ll never be employed or loved again. Don’t allow one rejection to derail your dreams. Negative self-perception also leads to fear of humiliation. You won’t achieve a fully happy life if you can never take risks or always avoid challenges because you are afraid of making mistakes.

Every thought you think, and every word you say is an affirmation. Your inner dialogue is a stream of affirmations which provide the framework of how you experience your life at every moment. In The Real Secret's Step Two we show you how to take any misguided, negative perceptions of yourself, expose them to the light of day and see them for the unhelpful thought patterns they are. Then  replace them with positive, constructive and self-nurturing messages that will bolster your confidence and speed the journey to happiness.

Happiness Habit 5, "Yes I Can!", in the Happiness Habits Experiment - asks participants to replace up to four negative self-perceptions with positive affirmations and repeat those daily for three weeks. This Happiness Habit has proved to be the second least popular, with only half as many people signing up to do it as for the two most popular, "Simply Smile" and "Three Good Things". It will be interesting to see, though, which of the Happiness Habits has has had the greatest effects on people's happiness levels when we get the surveys back in and analysed.

There's more about taking control of your life, defeating negative beliefs and low self esteem in The Real Secret which is available in paperback and Kindle on and
Post by Lucy


Spreading Happiness - Happiness Habit No. 4

What single thing will bring you the most happiness today?

It could be a much needed cheque arriving in the post. It might be successfully completing a challenging project. Or it may be the simple pleasure of a walk in the park with your dog. But the likelihood is that it will be some kind of communication with another person: appreciation from your boss, a phone call from a friend, being able to cheer up your child, or sharing a moment with your partner.

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy  is to be happy yourself.”
Gretchen Rubin, writer

Every recent study of happiness shows that good relationships are fundamental to being happy and that happy people have better relationships.

Positive emotions are generated by good interactions with other people. During these interactions our brain responds with chemical responses such as the production of “feel good” hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. In an upward spiral, positive emotions then make us feel better disposed towards others, more empathic, helpful, open and loving.

Positive Psychology research has found that altruism is strongly correlated with happiness. Professor Martin Seligman commented on a study that linked happiness with altruism; he was surprised, because he thought that unhappy people would identify with the suffering of others and be more altruistic. But "findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait [altruism]" (Seligman, 2002, p. 43). And likewise, altruism helps people to be happy. Seligman cites a range of evidence to show that there is a causal link between altruism and becoming happier in his book, Authentic Happiness (e.g. pp. 8-9). Jane Piliavin has also analysed studies which have looked at the effects of helping others, and concludes that, "on many levels - psychologically, socially, and even physically - one indeed does 'do well by doing good'" (Piliavin, 2003, p. 243). 

Richard Layard tells us that neuroscientific research shows that when we do kind things for other people the same areas of our brain light up as when we eat chocolate. What a bargain - and it's not even fattening!

"Happiness comes from giving, not getting. If we try hard to bring
happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also.
To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it."
John Templeton, philanthropist (1912 - 2008)

Habit No. 4 of the Happiness Habits Experiment is "Spreading Happiness" and we ask participants to undertake some act of kindness, above and beyond their normal, kind activities, daily for three weeks. Amongst our first tranche of participants, this Habit is only the fourth most popular: coming after "Simply Smile", "Three Good Things" "And Breathe..." - but ahead of "Yes I Can!" and "Fun To-Do Lists". We very much look forward to finding out how effective those who signed up for it, found it.

Whether you have signed up or not to the Happiness Habits Experiment, think of some generous actions which you could realistically carry out each day over the next three weeks. They can be gifts of your time, energy, or effort, and don’t have to cost money; they could be small and impulsive, or they could involve serious input and planning on your part. They can be directed to people you know and love or to someone you find hard to get on with; to contacts or colleagues; to strangers in need or to charitable organisations. They should be actions different to or beyond those kindnesses you already do on a regular basis.

You can do something extra for someone you see every day, or you can reactivate a lapsed friendship by an act of unexpected giving. You can enjoy watching the surprise and pleasure of those you offer your gift to, or you could savour in your imagination the amazement and gratitude of someone you help anonymously.

If you want some ideas for Spreading Happiness, have a look on the Random Acts of Kindness website for inspiration. And there are more Happiness Habits in The Real Secret programme.

Post by Lucy

Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. In C. L. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 227-247). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.


Happiness Habit 3 - To Do Lists / Goal-setting

Happiness Habit No.3, in our Happiness Habits Experiment, is "Fun To Do Lists". Amongst our first cohort of participants who have signed up to the Happiness Habits research project, this has turned out to be the least popular Habit of the six they can pick from. (We ask participants to choose from one to six activities - the Happiness Habits - and carry them out daily for three weeks, after which we survey their responses.) No 3, "Fun To Do Lists", has been chosen by less than half as many participants as those who have chosen to "Smile" daily (No. 1) - the most popular Habit to date.

And yet writing down three fun or enjoyable goals a day, pursuing, achieving and ticking them off the list, may provide those who are doing it with a clearly increased level of satisfaction with life. Here's why:

Setting and achieving goals has a powerful influence on creating well-being in our daily lives. We now know that the steps involved in goal-directed activity – motivation, goal-seeking, successful outcome and feelings of pleasure – are wired into the brain's structure. All achievement starts with motivation. Motivation leads to a decision that triggers a behaviour aimed at satisfying the aim. Achieving the goal produces positive feelings because it releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, which reinforces the reward, and acetylcholine, which helps the brain “tune in” and embed memories of success. Positive memories then encourage you to repeat the process which caused the pleasure.

To achieve happiness, we should make certain that we are never
without an important goal”
Earl Nightingale, writer, broadcaster (1921-1989)

The brain’s automatic goal-seeking mechanism was first identified by Dr Maxwell Maltz in his classic self-help book, Psycho-Cybernetics. He recognised the importance of defining a goal in positive terms; of creating a specific description in words and visualising the outcome of the goal; and of constant, conscious repetition of these steps to activate the goal-seeking mechanism of our subconscious.

The Reticular Activating System, as it is called, is such a successful piece of brain circuitry that it is essential to feed it only goals you really want to achieve, because the wrong messages can become embedded in your subconscious if you frame them carelessly or in negative terms.

A well known 1953 Harvard University experiment identified ten percent of graduates who had set themselves some goals and four percent who had actually written down their goals. By 1973 the net worth of the four percent was double that of all the rest.

In the task of  "Fun To-Do Lists" for the Happiness Habits Experiment, we have combined goal-setting with elements of The Real Secret's first step, "Choose To Be Happy" - where scheduling regular fun into your life is another Habit. You cannot, by definition, achieve peak performance all the time and by taking a break from one kind of activity, you allow your brain time to process and work more efficiently when you come back to it. Fun breaks or pleasurable activities that give you opportunities to smile,laugh and relax are especially beneficial.
“The real joy of life is in its play. Play is anything we do for the joy and love of doing it, apart from any profit, compulsion, or sense of duty. It is the real joy of living.”
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

In The Real Secret Step 4, "Route Planning", we ask readers to write some of the most important words of their life: goals for the long term, the mid-term and the immediate future.  However ambitious your goal, you can make your way towards it with regular, incremental, achievable steps, using flexibility to adjust your aims to changing situations and The Real Secret Habits as a road map to achieve your most desired destinations.

We'll be publishing our report on The Happiness Habits Experiment in early April. Please do sign up if you're interested in taking part in our ongoing research project.

Post by Lucy


International Women's Day; Women's Mental Health

“Women are drawers of water, hewers of wood, labourers, preparers of food, bearers of children, educators, healthcare providers, producers, and decision-makers. Although they are central to caring for families and communities, to production and reproduction, they are accorded unequal status. Throughout the world they are overworked and undervalued. Their subordination makes it more difficult for them to cope with the demands made upon them whether of a physical, social or emotional nature. Woman are more vulnerable than men to sex exploitation and violence, to poverty and malnutrition, to environmental degradation, to chronic diseases which are often exacerbated by pregnancy and lactation, and to the debilitating effects of harmful traditional practices.”

This was the opening of the Preface to the World Health Organisation’s 1993 report into Psychosocial and Mental Health Aspects of Women’s Health. 18 years later, the same still holds, though there is a growing understanding of these issues and more work being done to attempt to right the inequalities.

It is quite clear, though, that "gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks. Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders - depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. These disorders, in which women predominate, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem." (World Health Organisation)

MIND’s factsheet on Women and Mental Health gives us the following statistics about women’s mental health in the UK, taken from a variety of sources: 
  • ·     Recorded rates of anxiety and depression are one and a half to two times higher in women than in men.
  • ·     One study showed that 57% of those attending emergency departments for self-harm were women.
  • ·     13 to 15% of new mothers experience postnatal depression.
  • ·     Women in custody have a high level of psychological disturbance – 78%, compared with 15% in women in the general adult female population.
  • ·     Nearly two-thirds of women on remand have a diagnosis of depression. More than 40% have attempted suicide before entering prison. More than twice as many have an eating disorder compared with women in the general population.
  • ·     One in four women will experience intimate partner (domestic) violence (IPV) in their lifetime. Depression affects nearly half of women exposed to IPV, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects almost two-thirds.
  • ·     90% of the 1.6 million people in the UK who have an eating disorder are female.
 Another WHO report demonstrates the international and cross-cultural phenomenon of women’s vulnerability to depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence and escalating rates of substance use, which affect women to a greater extent than men across different countries and different settings. “Pressures created by their multiple roles, gender discrimination and associated factors of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse, combine to account for women's poor mental health. There is a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of such social factors and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women. Severe life events that cause a sense of loss, inferiority, humiliation or entrapment can predict depression.”

Williams and Miller report that “Gender inequality in society leads to differences in the life experiences of men and women, which affect mental health in different ways. Gender inequality is described as a system that tends to give more advantages to men in terms of employment, status and ownership. Women are much more often expected to look after others in the home or in society, often doing work that is undervalued and unpaid or poorly paid.”
The Geneva report of the WHO agrees that “Some risk factors for mental health problems affect women more often than men. These include gender-based violence, social and economic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank, and major responsibility for the care of others.”

For some women, family life may contribute to mental distress. Many women have primary or sole care of children, and women are more likely than men to take on caring responsibilities (e.g. for older family members). Women also tend to work in part-time jobs, and are over-represented in low paid occupations and sectors such as teaching and care work. Williams finds that the low social status traditionally associated with domestic and caring work can damage feelings of self-worth, while the stresses of overwork, extensive responsibilities and feeling undervalued can damage women’s mental health. While the extent of gender-based disadvantages varies according to social class and ethnicity, it has been argued that women bear the brunt of reconciling paid work with family life.

Research also shows that there are three main factors which are highly protective against the development of mental problems, and especially depression. These are:
  • having sufficient autonomy to exercise some control in response to severe events.
  • access to some material resources that allow the possibility of making choices in the face of severe events.
  • psychological support from family, friends, or health providers
Women around the world are less likely than men to have the first two, but hopefully number among their armory against mental health problems the support of family and friends.

And Pilgrim has found that women in the UK receive more services than men for mental health problems at the level of primary care, though this difference is less at the level of secondary care (specialist and hospital treatment). It is difficult to know whether more mental health problems are diagnosed in women at primary care level because they seek help more often than men, or because they actually experience more distress.
Either way, women's place in society the world over - their central role as carers of young and old,  their lower economic status and perceived value compared to men, their difficulties in balancing working and domestic life and their greater vulnerability to violence - negatively affects their mental health outcomes. This is mitigated by supportive relationships with friends and family and a willingness to seek help for problems - but it is not enough. Greater equality for women will bring improved mental health: a number leading charities brought together by Annie Lennox are working towards it under the banner of We Are Equals.

Posted by Lucy

More at:
Williams, J. and Miller J., 2008, ‘Gender inequality and the mental health of women and men’, in T. Stickley and T. Bassett (eds) Learning about mental health practice. Chichester, Wiley: 381–400.
Astbury, J., 2001, Gender disparities in mental health. Mental health. Ministerial Round Tables 2001, 54th World Health Assembly. Geneva, World Health Organisation
Pilgrim, D., 2010, ‘Mind the gender gap: mental health in a post-feminist context’ in: Kohen, D (ed) Oxford textbook of women and mental health. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Perrons, D., 2009, Women and gender equity in employment, Institute for Employment Studies.  

Williams, J., 2005, ‘Women’s mental health’, in: Tew, J (ed), Social perspectives in mental health: developing social models to understand and work with mental distress, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London
 Department of Health, 2002, Women’s mental health: into the mainstream, DH, London

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