University of Melbourne Magazine

The importance of being positive

  • The term ‘positive psychology’ at first glance may not suggest a serious discipline that could help thousands of people suffering from depression and perhaps even prevent suicide.

    But it could help ease widespread mental health problems that have arisen in China due to rapid economic, social, cultural and political change, according to Berkeley professor Dr Kaiping Peng.

    “China actually reached astounding number of people killing themselves because of the mental health problems,” Dr Peng says. “Last year, the number reached 250,000 people. Happiness and well-being is a big challenge to Chinese people right now. It’s the number one health risk factor to their survival.”

    Dr Peng presented his findings this month at the Fourth Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference organised by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

    Positive psychology is an evidence-based discipline that seeks to boost the well-being of all individuals – not just those with a diagnosed mental condition.

    Its ‘founding father’, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, opened the conference.

    Seligman has been investigating data on psychological practices that enhance well-being for more than two decades, but his public lecture filled the Melbourne Town Hall in a clear indication that the thirst for his type of knowledge is growing.

    The explosion in popularity has seen research output increase by over 400 per cent in recent years, according to a 2013 paper by PhD candidate Reuben Rusk and Associate Professor Lea Waters. New centres have been established in numerous countries, including here at the University of Melbourne.

    Positive psychology techniques are being taught in a broad range of languages and settings. Of them, the most talked-about is ‘mindfulness’.

    Mindfulness is not to be confused with meditation, says Professor Felicia Huppert, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Director of the Wellbeing Institute at Cambridge University.

    “Not all mindfulness involves meditation and not all meditation involves mindfulness,” she says.

    Professor Huppert developed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program for adolescents and looked at its effects in a controlled study with a sample of 537 pupils in 12 schools.

    “There were substantial, statistically significant increases in well-being particularly at the three month period,” she says.

    Professor Huppert’s team then divided the students into high, medium and low levels of practice.

    “It was absolutely clear,” she says. “The more practice the greater the benefit on well-being, on resilience and on mindfulness itself.”

    Her next step will be a larger, randomised trial in which schools don’t know whether they’re teaching mindfulness or another form of relaxation.

    “Some people think mindfulness is just about relaxation.’’

    The test will be whether those schools do equally well on the various outcome measures, Professor Huppert says.

    Relaxation can cause sleepiness, whereas mindfulness is an alert state that helps children to stop their minds from wandering, she says, but teachers are the key to success.

    “Training in attention is certainly something that should be taught in schools, but initially to teachers.

    “Then when the children themselves learn the skills, it’s an extraordinary combination.”

    Schools in 12 different countries now use Professor Huppert’s curriculum, and it has been translated into Dutch, German, Finnish and French.

    Despite its popularity in Western Europe, mindfulness began in the Far East.

    “It’s a very ancient technique that arose out of Buddhism, so it’s 2600 years old,” Professor Huppert says.

    Millennia later, rigorous institutions uphold the value of these practices.

    The UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence now recommends mindfulness training as a frontline treatment for the relief of recurrent depression, based on randomised control trials, according to Professor Huppert.

    “It’s very good at teaching us how to manage our emotions,” she says.

    “We first need to become aware of what we are feeling. Let’s say we’re aware that we’re feeling really angry right now, well instead of lashing out and yelling at somebody or hitting someone, we can just sit with that for a moment and think, okay I’m feeling really angry. And now I have a choice of what kind of response I can make.”

    Ancient Buddhists were not alone in emphasising mental techniques to boost well-being.

    Influential philosopher Confucius – born in 551 BC – set happiness as one of the top three duties of the Chinese people, Professor Peng says.

    But China’s burgeoning national wealth has distanced ordinary individuals from that cultural heritage and the tools it gave them for finding happiness, Dr Peng says.

    Read about how philanthropy is supporting positive psychology at the University of Melbourne.