What difference can the five ways to wellbeing make?
Posted Friday 20 May 2011
This is a guest post, part of our series on mental health at work.
You wake up to the sound of your alarm clock. Not fully awake, you get up, get ready and make your way to work, perhaps thinking about all the things – big and small – that await you there.
Perhaps you travel by bus or train, in which case you will share your commute with countless others, and for the most part you will probably avoid interacting with them. Or maybe you walk to work, in which case you will probably walk the same, familiar route as usual, in which there appears to be little new to see. Or perhaps you drive, in which case you might compete with the other car users for space on the increasingly congested roads.
You get to work, possibly greet a few colleagues on the way to your desk, and sit down where you will spend the majority of the next 7 hours before the end of your working day.
Sound familiar? Of course your working day might look nothing like this; you may cycle to work; you may not do a desk job; you may work at night; you may work part time or long shifts… But the point is this: you are in good company if you go through your working day with only work in your field of vision.
Now try this: stop for a minute or two and think about how different your working day could be, with a few small changes.
You wake up to the sound of your alarm clock. Still not fully awake, you get up, get ready and make your way to work. If you are on the train or bus you smile at someone. Just one person, that’s all. You may even offer someone your seat. And you might get off a stop early and walk the rest of the journey.
If you are walking, you glance at the sky and notice the shape of the clouds, and maybe you have a momentary flash of appreciation for the strange and beautiful things that nature holds. Or maybe you walk a slightly different route, and notice the flowers along the way.
If you are driving, you let someone out in front of you. Just one car. The driver is probably someone a bit like you, who appreciates the kindness of strangers. Whichever way you travel, you take a minute or two to focus on your own breath, on the sound and the sensation of breathing in and out. Just that, nothing more. You might marvel at how incredible and how fragile we are.
You get to work and you take a minute to ask someone how they are, and you engage with what they say. You work until lunchtime then perhaps go for a walk, for just ten minutes if that’s all you can spare. Or you steal a moment to read a few pages of your book, or phone a friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while. Just a five minute call to see how they’re doing or tell them your news.
In the middle of the afternoon you offer your colleagues a cup of tea. Maybe you have a chat in the kitchen with someone you don’t really know, and learn a little bit about what they do.
Of course you may do these things already, in which case you could try doing them just a little bit more. Most of us have room for improvement in how often we experience the positive feelings they generate – or you might just get a little buzz from recognising that you are doing these things already and that there is scientific evidence showing that they enhance your wellbeing. And by ‘these things’ I am referring to the Five Ways to Wellbeing – a set of five activities that individuals can do that are known to increase wellbeing: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give.
The Five Ways to Wellbeing were developed by nef (the new economics foundation) as part of the government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. The Foresight project was a two-year, state-of-the-science review led by the Government Office for Science and published in 2008[ii].
It synthesised research from some 400 scientists on the causes and consequences of mental capital and wellbeing, and explored the challenges for government in supporting the mental well-being of the population.
Foresight commissioned nef to develop a set of simple, evidence-based public health messages about the kinds of activities that promote positive mental health. Based on the Foresight project’s main science reviews, the Five Ways to Wellbeing were launched alongside the final report in a convenient postcard format. They were deliberately framed so as to be straightforward for a non-specialist audience to understand, simple, memorable and broad enough in scope to be relatively non-prescriptive whilst remaining true to the evidence base.
Since their launch, the Five Ways to Wellbeing messages have been successful in capturing the imagination of many people working in a variety of fields. They have been used in a number of innovative ways, from school-based educational programmes to public festivals, and picked-up as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.[iii]
At nef, we very much welcome the promotion of the Five Ways to Wellbeing in the workplace. The importance of paying attention to well-being at work is what led our colleagues at nef consulting to create our wellbeing@work measurement tool. For employers, the good news is that employees who have high levels of wellbeing are more likely to be productive at work.[iv]
While doing Five Ways activities enables people to enhance their own mental health and wellbeing, we shouldn’t forget that much of what affects our wellbeing at work relates to organisation-wide factors like job security and quality of management.
Similarly, we will need society-wide changes to address issues like inequality and poverty so that everyone can experience high well-being across their lives as a whole. But because the things we do in our lives are so crucial to our overall experience of life, the Five Ways are a very good place to start on the journey to achieving high well-being for all.
Sorcha Mahony, Researcher, Centre for Well-being, nef
[ii] Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project. (2008). Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project: Final Project Report. London: The Government Office for Science.
[iii] An analysis of uses of the Five Ways to Wellbeing is forthcoming in Aked, J., & Thompson, S. (in press). Five Ways to Wellbeing: New Applications, New Ways of Thinking. nef (the new economics foundation) and NHS Confederation.
[iv] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.
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