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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Happiness Habits - Conclusions & Recommendations

Following our Findings from the Happiness Habits Experiment, here are our conclusions and recommendations for how they could be implemented on a national basis to raise personal and national levels of happiness and well-being.


Happiness Habits work
The Happiness Habits Experiment provides supporting evidence to the existing body of research demonstrating that happiness levels can be raised in many individuals by simple physical and psycho-physiological interventions.

Focus and repetition of positive habits are key to maintaining a sense of increased well-being. Just as physical exercise and healthy eating habits must be performed regularly to sustain physical fitness, so mental and emotional fitness requires regular and continual maintenance.

The simpler interventions, in particular (such as “Smile” and “Three Good Things”) can become embedded as habits after three weeks of regular practice. Other, more complex activities, such as “Breathe”, “Spreading Happiness” and “Fun To-Do Lists”, take longer to become habits for more people. However, once these activities have become habits, participants in a programme of Happiness Habits will continue to carry them out automatically, freeing them to move onto acquiring new and different habits.

Comments from participants in The Happiness Habits Experiment support research that such interventions are “most successful when participants know about, endorse, and commit to the intervention”

“I was more aware of it as I was consciously thinking about it”

“I am in a constant battle with happiness anyway, a bit of focus is good.”

“The experiment made me more conscious about doing things that would raise my 'happiness levels’.”

Structure, motivation and prompts required
Despite being aware that Happiness Habits raised their happiness levels, participants found it hard to remember, or to be motivated, to do many of them regularly. External structures within which to develop a range of Happiness Habits including explicit instructions on ways to remember, and/or mechanisms to deliver reminders could be an important development in raising happiness levels. Development of web- and phone-based technologies could play a useful part – especially for young people.

A national programme to promote individuals’ ability to raise their own happiness levels could be developed which would impact positively on mental and emotional resilience, physical health, family life, education and the economy. In line with evidence-based practice in education, medicine, psychology and psychiatry, this could be delivered with immediate impact through the education system and NHS GP surgeries.


Happiness Habits should start early
Twice as many adolescents have emotional or behavioural problems today as in the 1970s. Children and young people could be taught simple activities to raise and maintain positivity and happiness levels in school and colleges – even if they do not go so far as to institute Happiness Lessons, as Headmaster Anthony Seldon has done at Wellington College.

All six of the Happiness Habits in this experiment (and many others) could easily be included across the curriculum in schemes of learning and lesson plans (just as different learning styles and “Every Child Matters” are systematically addressed at these levels), where they would support focus and achievement, foster co-operation and positive behaviour as well as instilling healthy mental and emotional habits in students.

Improved Access to Psychological Therapies
Whilst the main focus of our national health system has been on providing care for those who suffer from physical ill health, we are beginning to realise that we also now need to promote positive mental health, not least of all because there is evidence that how happy or optimistic people are can be decisive in determining how fast they recover from heart disease and other serious physical conditions.

Unfortunately, the help currently available is patchy and takes too long to access. In a recent survey of British family doctors, only 15% said they could usually get the standard psychological therapy recommended for those of their patients who need it by the government's own National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE). The increasing numbers of people asking for help from their doctors and presenting with mild depression and/or low level anxiety is of particular concern. These are people who could be helped with a limited intervention that does not require the time and resources needed for more serious mental health conditions and who would not benefit in the long term from prescription anti-depressants.

News that prescription drugs for antidepressants have risen 43% since 2006 to an incredible 23 million prescriptions a year, should concern us all. The British Journal of Medicine concludes that the rise in antidepressant prescribing for the period 1993-2005 is mainly explained by small changes in the proportion of patients receiving long term treatment (and this is also very likely for the most recent data to 2010) and is therefore not the result of new ‘recession’ cases as recently reported throughout the media. Despite these caveats, these figures nevertheless reflect the large numbers of people being prescribed anti-depressants as well as highlighting the numbers for whom depression has now become a chronic condition.

The NICE guidelines for adults experiencing depression state that, in the first instance, patients should be offered self help and psychological therapies. Antidepressants are not recommended as first line therapy for mild to moderate depression. However, GPs frequently prescribe antidepressants even when they believe that a different treatment, such as a talking therapy, would be more appropriate - because they feel they have no alternative.
This does not even account for those who do not ask for help because they feel the stigma of failure, or the stigma attached to the words “mental health”. For the stigma of mental health to operate we don’t even have to add the word “problem”.

What needs to happen now
A nationally available, low level self help intervention based on Happiness Habits, could be delivered from GP surgeries and provide immediate support for people of all ages suffering from ‘life’, as well as those with mild depression and/or anxiety. Such a programme could also substantially reduce mental health problems in young people and other marginalised groups, reduce the prescription of antidepressants, reduce pressure on GPs and therapists and prevent people waiting for psychological treatments from getting worse.

Recognition by government, schools, workplaces and community organisations of the debilitating effects of low level depression and/or anxiety and the high numbers of people affected is a crucial first step. Your colleague, a neighbour or young person; the postman, your dentist or teacher; and particularly someone who is without a job – these are all people who are quite likely to be suffering in silence when they should be able to access appropriate help without embarrassment. We all rush to our GPs when we get an infection and we expect to be treated appropriately. But how appropriate is drug therapy for mild depression and low level anxiety? These are conditions that need time and help to overcome - not a prescription that will end in addiction.

We need to help ourselves.
We need help to help ourselves.

All our results are available to view by clicking through to The Happiness Habits Report 

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