An Australian state is taking the use of positive psychology techniques to the next level by formulating a system-wide approach that can be used across an entire state or nation.
South Australia is running large-scale programs to improve people’s psychological health at all stages of life, from school students to workers and the elderly.
While the Asian kingdom of Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness measure to assess the wellbeing of its population and the UAE has a Minister for Happiness, South Australia is emerging as a world leader at developing state-wide wellbeing in democratic societies.
Led by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and the Department of Education and Childhood Development (DECD), the programs are being developed and exported across the world.
Last month the Government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates commissioned DECD to use this expertise to conduct a wellbeing survey of 70,000 students.
The student census will continue over a five-year period for children in the last two years of primary (grades 5 and 6) and the first two years of secondary (grades 7 and 8) at all private schools.
It follows a similar state-wide program rolled out in South Australia in 2013, which now involves about 45,000 students a year.
The notion of “positive education” is not new but has previously been developed at a school level whereas the South Australian program is taking a whole-of-state approach.
DECD Business Intelligence Director David Engelhardt said his department was also in talks about wellbeing projects in other countries including Northern Ireland and Slovenia.
“There is a huge interest internationally in positive education and the science is promising but young,” he said
“What we’ve done is scaled this up to a system level so it can operate across entire education systems rather than just individual schools.”
The wide-ranging census covers areas from school to nutrition, sleep, connectedness to family and peers, exposure to bullying, social engagement and out of school activities.
Results are then used to shape curriculums that build psychological health among students.
“The evidence is pretty clear that building resilience early in life is one of the most promising strategies to be able to respond to that,” Engelhardt said.
The global cost of mental health conditions was estimated at more than US$2 trillion in 2010. It is projected to increase to over US$6 trillion in 2030.
The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute established its Wellbeing and Resilience Centre in 2015 on the recommendation of positive psychology expert and former Adelaide Thinker in Residence Professor Martin Seligman.
Since then, the centre has grown from a staff of two to 14 as it looks at ways to measure wellbeing and resilience at a state-wide level and use the data to improve the psychological health of the population.
Director Gabrielle Kelly said while building wellbeing and resilience had been recognised as important for some time, methods of measuring its success – particularly at a mass level in a democratic state – were relatively unknown.
She said developing positive psychological skills while people were healthy rather than using them as therapy when they became mentally ill also made sense.
“We are building the wellbeing of our state across all ages. As we do so we are learning more about how to do it at scale as a prototype for the world,” Kelly said.
“There’s a great deal of interest in what we’re doing in Mexico, China, Dubai, England because the world is understanding the link between wellbeing, productivity and academic success”
The Wellbeing and Resilience Centre used Prof Seligman’s PERMA (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment) dashboard to define wellbeing and resilience and then added physical activity, nutrition, sleep and optimism to create PERMA+.
It also delivers TechWerks Resilience Training in South Australia, a program initially developed for the US Army.
The PERMA+ training was delivered to measure wellbeing to 200 manufacturing workers who know they will soon lose their jobs, prison staff and inmates, and older South Australians looking to the final stage of their lives after retiring from work.
“Often when people talk about mental health they are really talking about mental illness – there is an important distinction,” Kelly said.
“We are talking about building complete mental health – growing the psychological assets a person has, which will help them be stronger and help live a better life”
“We are one of the first to do it at this scale and that’s why everyone is paying attention.”
“Wellbeing is now a global industry. We are working on end – to – end solutions and a commercialisable range of products and services. First thought you have to have the evidence that works in the marketplace and that is what we are becoming very good at – that it really does improve mental wellbeing.”
Kelly said wellbeing and resilience training would play a pivotal role in preparing workers for the “fourth industrial revolution” when the rise of robotics and Artificial Intelligence forces a dramatic change in the workforce.
She said chief executives she talked with believed wellbeing and resilience would be the next evolution of occupational health and safety.
“The real dangers to people in knowledge economy jobs is not the sheet metal that falls on them, the real danger is whether they can handle the stress associated with their job,” she said.
“Psychological injury claims cost five times as much as physical injury claims and psychological injury claims in business are growing.
“The knowledge economy is demanding, people’s job security is reduced, transition and digital disruption is everywhere and there’s a lot of pressure on people and families”
“Building these psychological health assets so that you’ve got more resilience in the bank before the unexpected, challenging and normal negative life events occur is a sensible thing to do.”