David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, caused a stir a few years ago when he suggested focusing resources on the emotional development of disaffected young people rather than on the symptoms of their alienation, which manifest through crime, addictions etc. He positioned the third sector as playing the key role in facilitating that neglected emotional development. Positive psychology has placed youth well-being high on its agenda, so what might the science of well-being offer to these disaffected, young people? What is there to be gained from ‘making hoodies happy’?
This is an area of interest for In-Volve, the charity that offers alcohol, drugs and diversionary services to disaffected, young people. Could positive psychology help turn around the lives of young people who’ve moved beyond the risk into the reality of social, educational and health problems caused by their disaffection? In 2007 In-Volve gained funding from the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC) to pilot a positive psychology intervention and explore its impact on youth well-being and drinking habits. Alcohol is an especially pertinent issue for Britain’s teenagers, who regularly feature in the top three of binge drinkers in Europe, with multiple adverse consequences for their mental, emotional, social and physical well-being.
I put together an intervention programme based on eight areas of well-being research organised into ‘happiness zones’. This was piloted at Project 28, the Bath branch of In-Volve, with young people aged 14-20, all of whom had issues of alcohol and drug misuse. They attended one 2-hour session a week over autumn 2008 and were followed up during the first half of 2009 using quantitative and qualitative methods.
The Happiness Zones
|Session||Happiness Zones||Principal Themes|
|Week 1||Feel Good Zone||Happiness, Positive Emotions|
|Week 2||Future Zone||Gratitude, Optimism|
|Week 3||Me Zone||Strengths|
|Week 4||Chill Zone||Relaxation, Meditation|
|Week 5||Change Zone||Change, Goal-setting|
|Week 6||Me to You Zone||Relationships|
|Week 7||Body Zone||Nutrition, Physical Activity|
|Week 8||Bounce back Zone||Resilience, Growth Mindset|
The statistics revealed significant increases in happiness, optimism (the biggest rise) and positive emotions, together with a significant decrease in alcohol dependence, down two-thirds to a third of its original level. These results were all the more remarkable as the intervention used ‘the health model’ approach, putting the focus on increasing well-being and largely bypassing alcohol problems, which would be at the core of a ‘disease model’ intervention.
The decrease in drinking was accompanied by a parallel decline in drug consumption, confirmed in the qualitative interviews and an increase in activity as the participants de-toxed. Many of the young people gave up drugs altogether, realising that they were getting in the way of their goals. The development of a future goal orientation together with optimism about that future was another significant change. The young participants went from having little or no concept of their futures to setting goals, many of which were achieved during the study.
“…six months ago, all I was interested in was drinking and smoking weed. But now I’m interested in making a life for my kids.”
One session – the Change Zone – focused on goal-setting and this was named as one of the most useful interventions by the young people involved. There were two things that were key here – the goals originated in their own desires identified through the coaching exercise of ‘life planning’ rather than being imposed from the outside and because of that, there was an intrinsic motivation to achieve them. Breaking the goals down into easy ‘baby steps’ also helped to summon up the motivation to take action.
“… people try and take big steps to the future but here we took tiny little steps. And the more tiny you take them, the more you achieve them. That’s what I like.”
Gratitude = most popular positive emotion and intervention
“Like me I’ve always lived my life thinking I ain’t got this, I ain’t got that. But since I’ve been to the Happiness Zone, I’ve actually looked at what I’ve got. I’ve got a roof over my head. It might not be with my family where I want to be, but it’s one step, innit? I’ve got a boyfriend that really cares about me and I need to be grateful for it before I lose it. And that’s made me realise that you got to be grateful whilst you got it.” Ashlee
Of all the positive emotions that increased during the study, gratitude emerged as the most frequently mentioned. Gratitude is also an intervention in positive psychology and this was voted the most powerful of all the techniques used. Each session began with the young people naming the things that they were grateful for that week. Gratitude was the tool that helped switch from a mindset of the glass half empty, conscious of all that was lacking in their lives to a more optimistic glass half full, appreciative of the good things that they have. Gratitude was especially popular with the girls whereas the boys showed a preference for cognitive-based optimism techniques
“it’s been really a life-changing experience.”
“I’ve changed a lot for the better… I feel like a completely different person to be honest.”
It was evident that one of the theories that underpins positive psychology was at work in the study. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, when people experience more positive than negative emotions at a ratio of 3 to 1 or above, they enter upwards spirals of development leading to flourishing and resulting in transformation. There were signs of this transformation, both internally in more positive mindsets and externally in improved circumstances. Virtually all of the participants went back into education and achieved goals they set during the intervention. Some gained part-time jobs, others were re-housed into more suitable accommodation. There were changes to their social and physical well-being with improved relationships and better health as two of the other benefits.
From strength to strength
The session on strengths had a big impact on the group. This was particularly relevant for the young people, as most of them had been excluded from school and had little sense of having natural talents. For some it confirmed their choices of possible careers – several of the group had strengths of emotional intelligence and kindness and had expressed interest in becoming youth or social workers. For Danni, 16, learning that she had ‘people skills’ gave her the determination to pursue her goal of becoming a youth worker rather than following her older brothers on the path to prison. Using their strengths led to an increase in confidence and shows the potential for a strengths approach to be used to engage the disengaged with the workplace, such as the growing numbers of NEETs (those not in education, employment and training).
The whole strengths thing and me getting back into education, feels like a sort of a bit of a ticket out for me, I can get out of the horrible places that I’ve been in, and know that I’ll never going to be back there again, which is really great and that makes me feel good… it’s not big-headed to know that you’ve got a brain on your shoulders and that you can go on in life and not just be working crappy jobs. Definitely, it’s made me a lot more confident.”
Coaching helps disaffected youngsters to flourish
This was the first time that positive psychology has been applied to alcohol-misusing adolescents in a study. As the facilitator of the intervention, it confirmed for me that coaching, the tool of the health model, works extremely well with disaffected young people. By putting the focus on ‘what do you want’ rather than the counselling focus of ‘what’s the problem’, it encouraged the young people to identify and start moving towards their goals. The pilot also showed that increasing the ratio of positive to negative emotion towards that magical 3 to 1 tipping point, could hold the key to helping disaffected youngsters into a state of flourishing and turning their lives around, for example, by going back to education as many of the participants did. Positive emotions not only feel good, they do you good too.
In summary, the programme led to increases in four dimensions of well-being: Hedonic well-being (the ‘feeling good’ part of happiness), eudaimonic well-being (the part of happiness concerned with realising your potential), social well-being (shown in improved relationships) and physical well-being (demonstrated by improved physical health and increased activity). It also shows the potential for positive psychology to be used – not just as prevention – but also for those who have symptoms of a disorder or disaffection.
The intervention was described as ‘life-changing’ by many of the participants with the biggest transformation of all – inevitably – for one pessimistic pregnant 19-year old, described by her key-worker as “almost afraid to think of what good can happen… for fear of what bad might happen.” Cassie held to her resolution to stay sober during her pregnancy and changed her mind about returning to alcohol once she became a mother, a sign of her caring more about her future.
“I think the future’s good for me whereas before I thought oh no, nothing’s going to turn out alright but I changed.”
Two months after the study Cassie, the girl who had lacked confidence in her future, gave birth to a baby girl and named her… Faith. A poster girl for learned optimism!