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Tell us a happy story

rachelCJanuary 20th was ‘Blue Monday’; apparently the most depressing day of the year for many due to a combination of factors which include the weather, debt, time since Christmas, failed New Year’s resolutions and low motivational levels. I won’t get into the debate regarding the science behind this finding and whether this is true or not (as that’s a discussion in its own right) but, either way, it seems like an appropriate time to blog about the topic of mental wellbeing.

As I drove home from my fitness class the other day (along with all the other people who’d made resolutions to up their exercise levels and live a healthier lifestyle at the start of this year), I listened to someone on the radio talking about what makes them happy. I was interested to hear their conclusion; that their frequent comparisons of themself to other people had caused much of their unhappiness.

These recollections of what made them happy told me far more about the subject than many of the statistics I’d heard in recent years. Many surveys look at the relationship between the determinants of wellbeing with other variables such as income or lifestyle, and while the findings are interesting, they rarely help us to understand the outcome. Scandinavians may be some of the happiest people on the planet… but why?

Story bookSurveys obviously have their place, but they are limited in their value when it comes to understanding subjective issues such as wellbeing, so we need to adopt more creative, multi-faceted approaches. One reason for this is that our memories are formed through a creative, evolving process. Research should therefore tap into the stories and metaphors that build into our experiences. It should let the participant provide feedback in their own words, or indeed, images (bearing in mind that human thought is the product of images not words according to Zaltman (2003)). For example, with regard to happiness, asking the individual to tell a story about a time when they were really happy or unhappy might be more meaningful….and let’s face it, more interesting for the reader.

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