Smiling can make you healthy

The nation has been fixated with the royal wedding because it gave them something to feel happy about.

Now that most of the hype is over, most people’s happiness levels will quickly return to normal.

The Happines Habits Experiment, carried out by wellbeing expert, Lucy McCarraher, and social psychologist, Annabel Shaw – authors of The Real Secret programme and self help book – shows there is a better way to raise individual and national happiness levels.

Politicians might hope that big events will distract the nation from its problems for longer. Research shows the kind of economic instability we are currently experiencing has a bad effect on the happiness of society as whole. Unemployment can cause the same level of unhappiness in individuals (worse in men) as a major bereavement.

So if we’re not feeling good, why is there so much talk about measuring wellbeing these days? The answer’s simple: happiness matters – not just to our individual lives, but to society as whole. Happier workers are more productive and salespeople are more successful. Relationships last longer, parents ‘parent’ better and children learn more. Even doctors diagnose better when they are happier.

GPs say that more people are coming to them with depression and anxiety about money worries. Anti-depressant prescriptions rose to an incredible 23 million last year – partly because some are staying on this medication for much longer. Psychotropic drugs, potentially addictive, seem an inappropriate way of helping people suffering from ‘life’, rather than a serious mental illness.

In their Happiness Habits Experiment Lucy and Annabel asked people to undertake between one and six simple activities daily for three weeks. The results show that daily repetition of exercises – like smiling, being kind to others and repeating positive affirmations – really did raise happiness levels.

And better still, some of these activities can become habits in as little as three weeks. When Happiness Habits, like any other habits, become embedded, people no longer have to even think about them, they just become second nature and the underlying structure of a happier life.

If many of us have the power to raise our own happiness levels by something as simple as Happiness Habits, why are we not all doing it?

Partly because, even when we know it works, it’s hard to remember and stay motivated to put the work in. Mainly because there’s no national programme to get school children into Happiness Habits, or that GPs offer to help people to help themselves.

Only 15% of GPs say they can usually get the standard psychological therapy recommended (by N.I.C.E.) for their patients who need it. The NHS’s ‘Improved Access to Psychological Therapies’ initiative is training up more therapists and offering online courses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), but for many there is still a stigma to mental health, even without the word problem.

An evidence-based Happiness Habits programme of self help, with support from a trained non specialist or online, could reach the parts of society that no other current intervention is reaching.

Of the six Happiness Habits that were part of the Experiment, the most effective were Spreading Happiness, Simply Smile, Fun To-Do Lists and Three Good Things. And Breathe… was helpful for relieving stress. No men chose to repeat positive affirmations (Yes I Can!).
Respondents to the final survey agreed that working on three Happiness Habits at a time was the best number for raising happiness levels.

Now, Lucy and Annabel are calling for a Happiness Habits programme to become part of school standards and lessons. They suggest that the NHS provide a nationally available, low level self help intervention based on Happiness Habits to support people suffering from ‘life’ (including those currently too embarrassed to ask for help) as well as those with low level anxiety and/or depression.

This kind of self help programme could substantially reduce anti-depressant prescriptions, pressure on GPs and therapists and prevent people awaiting psychological treatments from getting worse.

Given that one of the obstacles is being able to remember to carry out Happiness Habits, using new technology such as web- and phone-based apps could help engage young people and embed habits.

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