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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 19/05/2009 | 1 Comment

In the first year of operation the Centre ran some action research training courses. We designed these to introduce people from various groups to the some of the ideas on confidence and well-being we were working on. We also aimed to equip participants with some of the skills and tools to run action research training projects. One of the main people involved in this initiative was Dr Elaine Duncan, a psychologist at Caledonian University who I first met at a Positive Psychology Conference in Italy. Elaine was one of the tutors on the course and has been involved as an adviser on various Centre projects.

One of the participants on the Action Research training courses was Joe Williamson, Director of Wellhouse Housing Association. Joe was greatly taken by some of the ideas in Positive Psychology. Following various discussions Elaine and Joe designed a study called ‘Having a Word with Yourself’ which would try to improve Wellhouse residents’ feelings of optimism, happiness, life-satisfaction etc. (‘Subjective well-being’.) Eventually they got funding for the study from the now defunct Community Scotland.

The report on the project has now been published and it makes interesting reading. It is simultaneously dispiriting and extremely positive. What is dispiriting is that the measures taken on the members of the local community, who agreed to take part, suggest worrying levels of depression, and exceedingly low levels of self-esteem, optimism, life-satisfaction and happiness. Since there is good international data linking some of these to health outcomes (eg optimism and physical and mental health) it can help us understand why some areas of Glasgow may have such appalling health records and low levels of life expectancy.

The study involved participants, on a daily basis, thinking and writing about positive aspects of their life with a particular focus on gratitude. During this month long intervention the project’s  researcher phoned the participants on average 7 times.

The results of the intervention are very strong:

  • It showed a significant reduction in feelings of depression.
  • All the well-being measures improved (happiness, optimism, self-esteem and life-satisfaction).
  • Participants maintained the habit they had formed and kept thinking and or writing about gratitude.
  • Some participants said that the intervention had an effect on their goals and what they did in life in terms of employment, promotion etc.

What is particularly important and impressive about this study is that it suggests that the effects did not just continue, but also got  stronger, as time went by. The measures taken four months after the intervention are significantly higher than they were after one month. This is such an encouraging sign, suggesting that the intervention is having an effect which could well be life-changing.

A couple of observations are appropriate. One of them is on gender. The original group of participants included 53 females and 13 males. The Centre carried out research on a similar intervention with S2 pupils and we found that the exercise had a more beneficial effect on the girls than the boys. Indeed for some boys it had a negative effect. Another study in England with men and women also found that it was more beneficial for women. Since women are 50 per cent of the population and play an important role in the family, of course, we should be doing things that promote women’s mental health but we just need to be aware that a gratitude type of exercise may have strongly gendered effects and not work so well with men.

The second point is that the intervention was positive/grateful thinking and writing plus the help and involvement of an extremely personable and empathetic researcher (Cheryl Rees) who, on average, had 7 phone calls with participants. This may have been a really important part of the intervention and doing the exercise without this may have had less impact.

This is also an exercise which has to be handled with extreme sensitivity and caution and I’m sure given Joe Williamson’s involvement in this instance it was. So why is such sensitivity needed? I am very much convinced by the public health researcher Richard Wilkinson’s argument that the problem for many folk in deprived areas is not so much absolute poverty but relative deprivation. It does not feel good to be at the bottom of the heap. Unequal societies breed ill health and a raft of social problems. Potentially this exercise could be telling people to forget inequality and feel grateful for what they have. On the other hand, I have suspected for a long time that part of the problem for poor folk is that their ‘deprivation’ is repeatedly drummed into them by the media and well-meaning professionals. This deprivation is about material circumstances. Yet we know that so much of what is good in life, and can make us feel happy, is not about material goods as such but about everyday happenings and relationships. IF we look for these, and amplify our positive feelings around them, then we can experience positive feelings. These positive feelings then  energise us ….. and so a virtuous circle is established.

The great thing about this exercise is that is suggests that Positive Psychology intervention, like this one, may have a really important contribution to make to boosting well-being in Scotland, particularly in challenged communities. The measures used in the Wellhouse study are the ones the Centre mainly uses in our Confidence Research System. If you would like to run an action research project on subjective well-being or using a different type of intervention, eg physical activity, do get in touch to see if we might be able to support you.  And, of course, if you have been undertaking research, particularly in Scotland, do let us see it.

Read the Wellhouse report and what they are planning to do next.

Comment By Comment
Joined: 04/11/2011

Comment Posted: 04/11/2011 00:58
This project is questionable as I know that most of the participants were volunteers who already were on one committee or another in Wellhouse. All had already been volunteering within Wellhouse. Many of the participants had already been primed and approached by the Director. Contrary to what the public face of the Association is I can witness to the fact that behind the scenes the Housing Manager and Director had very negative opinions of the volunteers that sit on the varous commitees. How sad that the staff of Wellhouse HOusing Association are treated badly and I question why no-one has looked back over the years and explain why almost 99 of staff leave the organisation due to pressure from management and their unrealistic demands on staff. Staff dare not go off sick as management i.e. Director and Depute Director, recently promoted to the post are very soon working on 'getting rid' of that member of staff. I can provide names and details if required. I question a depute director who has previously in the evening after staff have left accessed their email and read messages. It did not just stop there, the depute director, Yvonne Hague, also accessed the Directors email and shared details of that with another.
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