The How to thrive The documentary, in cinemas from today, follows seven people as they learn not only to survive, but to thrive.
The documentary aligns with “positive psychology,” which aims to provide people with the skills and resources to proactively support their mental health and well-being.
I research positive psychology and was an expert consultant for the documentary, assessing the participants’ progress over 18 months.
My analysis shows that the evidence-based strategies in the documentary supported participants to thrive, leading most of them to feel and function well in many aspects of their lives.
There are lessons here for everyone. See what we learned from our intensive filmmaking process that you can apply to improve your life.
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Filming began shortly before the start of the pandemic. Twelve people from different backgrounds – all with varying degrees of mental illness – participated. A two-day retreat introduced everyone to each other and the journey ahead.
Each person had their own psychiatric support as a condition to be part of the program. There was also a clinical psychologist overseeing the process.
Then the lockdown began.
Participants connected via Zoom, creating a sense of community and developing a sense of belonging. They were introduced to evidence-based strategies to improve their lives and recorded their progress on their phones.
All participants learned about their character strengths (the positive parts of your personality that make you feel authentic and engaged), created a vision board for their best possible future selves, practiced self-compassion and identified what went well in their lives and why.
They also received individual coaching sessions and were given activities specific to their needs.
Of the original 12 participants, seven were included in the final cut of the film, whose stories allowed the producers to talk about a range of approaches and diversity of mental health conditions.
How I assessed their progress
I collected data documenting participants’ experiences, mental illness and well-being.
Over the course of eight months, participants made significant changes in their lives and saw the benefits. The benefits continue for the next 10 months.
Let’s take a scale from -10 (to indicate high mental distress) to +10 (completely thriving).
On average, participants went from -3.2 (mild to moderate discomfort) to +5.4. Even an improvement of 2 points would be statistically significant. However, we saw a difference of over 8 points, clearly showing that participants were thriving and demonstrating clinically significant improvements.
The biggest changes occurred from March to April 2020, during the documentary’s main intervention period. However, improvements continued over the next 17 months.
On average, participants felt more satisfied with their lives, more optimistic, more engaged and more connected. Participants improved their physical health and felt less lonely and distressed.
Participants felt as if they were struggling less. They felt more supported by others and gave more support to others. They increased their skills, resources and motivation to live well.
The results support studies that suggest happiness doesn’t just happen – it’s a skill that can be learned and developed, with the right goals and supports.
What else could be going on?
While seven participants were included in the final cut, all the original 12 participated in the assessments during the first 12 months. Almost all show significant increases in their mental health and well-being during the intervention period and beyond.
One participant, who did not participate in many of the intervention activities and stayed away from the group, did not see these improvements.
It is possible that the benefits arose from the psychiatric support participants received as part of the documentary. However, each participant had years of experience with psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health aids, yet continued to struggle deeply.
This suggests that the intervention provided additional benefits to usual mental health care.
Studies show that positive psychological interventions can increase well-being and reduce symptoms of depression.
However, we do not know how positive psychological interventions alone compare to usual mental health care. We also lack evidence for adding positive psychology to routine mental health care.
Positive psychology interventions have been used primarily with humans without moderate to severe mental illness. Indeed, one of the surprising parts of this experiment was the addition of positive psychology to standard care for people with moderate to severe mental illness.
What can we learn?
The documentary suggests several key ways to support mental health and well-being.
1. Find your tribe
Throughout the documentary, the participants developed a community. Humans have a natural need to belong. Conversely, loneliness is associated with mental and physical illness and even premature death. Find people you can relate to and connect with on a deep level, beyond superficial “friends”.
2. Engage in meaningful activities
Studies show that engagement with life is an important indicator of healthy aging. This means not just slipping into life, but sucking the marrow out of life. It involves finding and committing to activities that fill you up and give you a sense of life, rather than those that drain you of life.
3. Be compassionate
Be compassionate with yourself and others. We are often our own worst critics. We do our best. Be kind to yourself and extend that kindness to others.
4. Be optimistic
Be hopeful and optimistic about the future. Things won’t always work out, but if we’re biased to see the possibility of what could be, the results may surprise us.
5. Take care of yourself
Take care of your physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. Eat and rest well, get moderate physical activity, and actively participate in activities that make you feel and function well.
But be careful
Positive psychology interventions are not a panacea. As part of the documentary, they only worked for those who actively participated in the interventions and connected well with others.
Each participant was experiencing one or more mental illnesses. So positive psychology has not replaced conventional psychiatric support. They went hand in hand.
While the documentary presents a hopeful story of recovery, if you are struggling with mental illness, it is important to connect with additional forms of support, including your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist.
If this article has raised issues for you or if you are concerned about someone you know, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Peggy Kern, Associate Professor, Center for Positive Psychology, The University of Melbourne
If this story has raised concerns or you need to talk to someone, consult this list to find a 24/7 emergency hotline in your country and reach out for help.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.