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Happiness for vulnerable people

01 May 2013 | Carwyn Gravell

Man On Street

The achievement of happiness is a science not an art. So say Martin Seligman, Matthieu Ricard, Sir Richard Layard and their followers who have codified the types of actions and thoughts that make us emotionally well and that allow us to 'flourish' as human beings. Behavioural experiments have been conducted, brains scanned and data sets processed. Happiness as defined by our emotional state, life satisfaction, and sense of meaning and purpose in life is now even being measured by the government! (Swansea, Glasgow, and Manchester according to the ONS are the UK's misery hot-spots, though spirits are rallied somewhat, one hopes, by the success of their football teams.)  

There are external factors that contribute to our happiness (whether we have a job, the material conditions of our life, etc) but 'personal resources' count just as much (our attitudes, beliefs, sense of resilience and hopes for the future) in enabling us to function well and to feel good. What's more, we can boost our personal resources by various actions (learning new skills, showing kindness to others, spending time with family and friends) and by the practice of 'positive psychology' - for example, by writing down every night 3 good things that have happened during the day (a practice proven to lift mood in the long term and to reduce depressive symptoms).

These insights have caught on. The Action for Happiness movement now has over 29,000 members from over 140 countries. Who are these people? What's their motivation for joining? According to Sir Richard Layard's seminal book on happiness, it is the pursuit and achievement of material prosperity that has made us discontent, sick at heart. Is the happiness movement therefore merely a middle-class de-tox of the spirit, and its disciples the victims of a culture of anomie? 

When Lemos&Crane teamed up with Action for Happiness recently the question we asked was: How can lessons from the new science of happiness be applied to services for homeless and vulnerable people? We were joined by some old friends of the firm who provide support services to these groups to grapple with the question, which threw up some interesting challenges and paradoxes… 

Firstly, to state the obvious, homeless and vulnerable people are not rich, or well off. Money, or at least a modicum of material comfort, would be a start for many in their position, surely? Secondly, is it really the business of service providers spending public money to make people happy? Aren't they there to meet material need, fix problems? Once this is done, it's over to the (fixed) person, buoyed by gratitude perhaps, to get on with their life, with happiness a distant and private goal. And thirdly, isn't this happiness thing a government ruse to make poor people content with hardship because they (the government) have run out of money to address it?

Practitioners of the happiness movement argue that their insights are for everyone's benefit, not just well-off people. Service providers don't need to wait until their service users' needs have been met, in a neat escalation of a hierarchy of needs, before getting on to the happiness step. It doesn't work like that. Practice of the happiness code can help people make the most of their present circumstance however challenging, providing energy and motivation to address problems, set goals, be resilient to set backs and to progress in life. It needs to run alongside the traditional model of support, not follow on afterwards. 

So if the pursuit of service users' happiness has a valid place in the mission statement of support providers, how should services enact and embody the promise?

A number of headings emerged from the discussion:

  1. The importance of asking service users about and respecting their strengths, interests and capabilities not just their needs and problems
  2. Getting staff themselves to buy into and to practice the insights of happiness - showing kindness to others, taking interest in people and their environment, exploring new skills and interests, etc
  3. Finding ways of 'overtly' communicating the principles of happiness to service users through innovative means (games, messaging on posters, texts, newsletters, etc) - contextualizing the happiness mantras to take account of people's challenging circumstances (it might be hard for a rough sleeper to real off three positive events in their day)
  4. Exploring ways of instigating activities that generate happiness 'covertly' - nature projects, choirs, book groups, offering opportunities for volunteering, etc
  5. Getting service providers and service users relating on a more equal footing (while respecting professional boundaries, duty of care, etc) through co-production for example

Lots to work on then... In the meantime, here are some examples of work already going on that we heard about at the seminar to keep spirits up:

  • The Simon Community's ethos of encouraging  love and kindness on a day-to-day basis within their service for rough sleepers  - the organisation has over 100 volunteers who contribute to the service alongside 2 full-time staff
  • St Mungo's Recovery college where staff and services enrol on courses side by side and share learning and enthusiasm; one of the most popular courses being 'Brand Me'!
  • The DIY Happiness project run by South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust where groups of vulnerable and disadvantaged women have taken part in happiness workshops


Lemos & Crane

Carwyn Gravell is a partner at Lemos&Crane. Lemos&Crane has provided practitioners and policy-makers with information for action on social problems since 1994. They work with professionals in social housing, local government, criminal justice agencies, schools and voluntary organisations.

This article is based on a workshop on Happiness and Vulnerable People held in partnership with Action for Happiness in April 2013.


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