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The Summer of our Discontent

31 Oct 2011 | Miriam Akhtar

This summer the UK was rocked by riots with young people playing the major role in the looting of shops. In the weeks that followed children as young as 11 were put in front of the courts. Many of these young offenders had already chalked up a list of previous convictions.

I came across disaffected young people such as these and others known as NEETs  (Not in Education, Employment or Training) when I was carrying out my MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Psychology) research working with the charity In-Volve to apply positive psychology with substance-misusing young people, in particular those abusing alcohol. Given that the motivation to drink amongst teenagers is related to wanting to be happy, to change mood, escape from troubles and deal with stress, surely positive psychology is well-placed to help adolescents to alternative routes to happiness, positive emotions and resilience?

'The Happiness Zones'

To test this I ran a small pilot of positive psychology interventions (PPIs) over 8 sessions and tracked the teenage participants over 5 months. The experiment turned out to be a success with positive changes on the inside (higher happiness, optimism and other positive emotions, lower rates of drinking and drug-taking) mirrored by welcome developments on the outside as the teens re-engaged with education, got jobs and moved into better accommodation.

There were improvements across their hedonic, eudaimonic, physical and social well-being. It convinced me that PPIs are useful not only as prevention but also as treatment for young people who've moved beyond the risk and into the reality of social, educational and health problems. Here are five practical insights that emerged from that experiment for anyone applying PPIs with disaffected teens.

  1. What makes you happy? When I asked the young participants about what made them happy, the answers that came back were mainly related to money - the latest gadgets etc. So when they heard about the limited role that money plays in happiness, there was such strong resistance that several participants threatened to walk! But then as part of a savouring activity I asked them to write a list of their happiest memories. And that's when they got it - they realised that none of their cherished memories of falling in love, babies' births and special moments with loved ones came with a price-tag attached. This was a pivotal exercise in helping them to appreciate what really makes us happy and to challenge the familiar media message of consumerism.
  2. Three Good Things. The participants viewed themselves as deprived with little reason for gratitude, so I used Three Good Things as a way for them to check in at the start of a session and report back on all the positives that had happened since the previous week. This got the sessions off to a good start, put the participants into a good mood and was instrumental in the significant rise in happiness and positive emotions in the experimental group. Gratitude was rated as their most effective intervention and the most frequently-experienced positive emotion.
  3. Future focus. A future time perspective was absent in these disaffected young people. They were present hedonists with their horizons set to instant gratification through alcohol, drugs, sex, shoplifting etc. Coaching helped them to develop more of a future focus. The key here was to make sure that they were setting goals based on what they themselves wanted for their lives, rather than being influenced by family, peers, key-workers etc. Also helpful was adding both a 'towards' and 'away from' motivation to the goal. It's useful when giving up an addiction to have both in place so that as well as creating an attractive vision of the goal you also ask what it might be like if they don't achieve their goal? Coaching turned out to be a highly effective process to use with disaffected young people.
  4. Using your talents. Most of the teens had dropped out of education and had very little sense of their talents. Taking the VIA test helped them to discover that they had strengths beyond academia. For Danni, 16, discovering that she had strengths in the love/humanity virtue fired her up to pursue her dream of becoming a youth worker. Discovering their strengths led to an increase in confidence, motivation and self-esteem. Taking a strengths test is an incredibly valuable thing for any young person who's been disenfranchised by the education system.
  5. Mindfulness. Meditation is not an easy sell to disaffected young people  (nor is it to some of my high-flying coaching clients!) but if you can get past its hippy image and emphasize the benefits of relaxation, it is worth it. Our route in was by giving young people taster sessions of the physical therapies like foot massage to help them switch into the parasympathetic nervous system. We followed this with a guided mindful meditation, which led one participant to exclaim that she felt so chilled like she'd just smoked a joint! The goal was to show them alternative ways to calm a busy, anxious mind. During the follow-up the young people reported experiencing calm more frequently and also valuing the benefits of that tranquillity.

Disaffected young people are one of the toughest groups to work with but I was surprised to find that they were receptive to happiness interventions, possibly reflecting a longing to escape from their chaotic lives. Across the experiment the positivity ratio of the group rose from 1:1 and approached the tipping point of 3:1, which marks the start of flourishing. Even at these sub-threshold levels of positivity there was evidence of a transformation from druggie drop-outs to dynamic young people.


Miriam Akhtar is a positive psychology coach and trainer and author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression which will be published in 2012. www.positivepsychologytraining.co.uk 


Akhtar, M. & Boniwell, I. (2010). Applying positive psychology to alcohol-misusing adolescents: a group intervention.Groupwork,20(3), pp.6-31.

Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60,678-686.

Honess, T., Seymour, R., & Webster R. (2000).The Social Contexts of Underage Drinking. London: The Home Office.


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