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Psychologists are exploring the idea that maximising wellbeing might be as important as treating mental health problems.
Professor Peter Kinderman explains how a BBC Lab UK experiment has allowed us to learn more about wellbeing.
Wellbeing is a widely used term, which can mean subtly different things. For the purposes of this study, wellbeing can be thought of as the ability to develop your potential; work productively and creatively; build strong and positive relationships with others; and contribute to your community.
A ground-breaking experiment has allowed us to harness the power of the BBC audience to create a new tool for psychologists.
Ever since the World Health Organisation was founded in 1946, scientists and policy-makers have encouraged a focus on health and wellbeing rather than disease and illness (Constitution of the World Health Organisation, New York, 1946). Psychologists now suggest that, instead of thinking about a black-and-white distinction between ‘sanity’ and mental illness, it's more sensible to think of a gradient of mental health.
As well as identifying any problems, they realise it can be as important to assess someone’s resilience and strengths. It makes sense to talk about how happy or sad, or how confident or anxious a person is, rather than simply focusing on whether he or she has a diagnosable mental illness.
Mental health problems affect people differently. Some find it much easier than others to hold down a job, raise children or maintain a relationship. For this reason, psychologists need a way to assess an individual’s ability to live in a positive, productive way. This is why we set out to develop a new way to measure wellbeing.
Until now, it has been very difficult to measure wellbeing in a complete and reliable way. With the help of BBC Lab UK, staff at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh have developed a 24-item questionnaire which does just that by exploring the causes and origins of both mental health problems and happiness.
It was found that wellbeing was dependent on a very wide range of factors. The questionnaire focused on three key aspects: physical health, relationships and psychological health. Interestingly, it was found that people who scored highly on our questionnaire were more likely to indicate that their life had 'meaning and purpose'.
This scale was based on a pilot study run on the BBC Lab UK site. Running the study over the internet allowed the team to reach far more people than would have been possible if the research was carried using face-to-face technicques. More than 3,000 people completed the experiment in the pilot phase. This large sample size is one of the things that gives us confidence in the new measure.
An extensive analysis of the data allowed the creation of a ‘BBC Wellbeing Scale’. This has now been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal 'Quality of Life Research', and it is hoped that other psychologists will use it for research purposes and in the treatment of mental health problems. It is currently being evaluated by several NHS Trusts.
Developing this measure was part of a larger investigation with BBC Lab UK.
‘The Stress Test’ examines the importance of biological and genetic factors, the impact of events that happen in our lives and our social circumstances. Just as importantly, it also looks at how we explain and interpret the events in our lives.
It is hoped to compare the importance of these different factors. In other words, the impact of 'nature' and 'nurture' is being investigated into how they affect our mental health. The findings will help give the best advice to patients about how to improve their mental health.
The BBC Wellbeing Scale was developed by Professor Peter Kinderman and Eleanor Pontin from the University of Liverpool, Dr Sara Tai from the University of Manchester and Dr Matthias Schwannauer from the University of Edinburgh.
The development and validation of a general measure of wellbeing: the BBC wellbeing scale was published in the journal 'Quality of Life Research' by authors Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E. and Tai, S.
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