I was an expert advisor on the documentary ‘How to Thrive’. Here’s what happened after this wellbeing experiment

The documentary How to Thrive, out in theaters today, follows seven people as they learn not just to survive, but to thrive.

The documentary is consistent with “positive psychology,” which aims to provide people with the skills and resources to proactively support their mental health and well-being.

I research positive psychology and served as a consultant on the documentary that assessed participants’ progress over 18 months.

My analysis shows that the evidence-based strategies thrive in the documentary-supported participants, resulting in most of them feeling and functioning well in multiple aspects of their lives.

There are lessons for everyone here. Here’s what we’ve learned from the intense film making process that you can apply to improve your life.

Read more: Explainer: What is positive psychology and how can you use it for yourself?

The process

Filming began just before the pandemic began. Twelve people from different backgrounds – all with varying degrees of mental illness – took part. A two day retreat introduced everyone to each other and the journey ahead.

Each person had their own psychiatric support as a requirement for participation in the program. There was also a clinical psychologist who oversaw the process.

Then the lockdown began.

Participants connected via Zoom, creating a sense of community and developing a sense of belonging. They were introduced to evidence-based strategies to improve their lives and filmed their progress on their phones.

All participants learned about their strengths of character (the positive parts of your personality that make you feel authentic and engaged), created a vision board of their best possible future selves, practiced self-compassion, and identified what went well in their lives and why.

They also received individual coaching sessions and received activities specifically tailored to their needs.

Of the original 12 contestants, seven were included in the final film, the stories from which enabled the producers to talk about a range of approaches and the diversity of mental illness.

How to Thrive, which hits theaters on October 13th.

How I assessed her progress

I collected data documenting participants’ experiences, mental illness, and well-being.

Over a period of eight months, the participants made major changes in their lives and saw the benefits. The benefits continue for the next ten months.

Let’s take a scale from -10 (indicating high psychological distress) to +10 (completely thriving).

On average, participants increased from -3.2 (light to moderate exertion) to +5.4. Even a 2 point improvement would be statistically significant. But we saw a difference of more than 8 points, which clearly showed that the participants were doing well and showing clinically significant improvements.

The biggest changes occurred from March to April 2020, during the documentary’s main intervention period. But improvements continued over the next 17 months.

How to Thrive Poster
Participants said they had fewer problems.
How to Thrive/IMDB

On average, participants felt more satisfied with their lives, more hopeful, more engaged and more connected. Participants improved their physical health and felt less lonely and distressed.

Participants felt they had fewer problems. They felt more supported by others and gave more support to others. They increased their skills, resources and motivation to live well.

The findings support studies suggesting that happiness doesn’t just happen — it’s a skill that can be learned and developed, with the right goals and supports.

Read more: How to avoid ‘toxic positivity’ and take the less direct route to happiness

What else could be going on?

While seven participants were included in the final selection, all of the original 12 participated in the assessments during the first 12 months. Almost all showed significant improvement in their mental health and well-being during and beyond the intervention period.

One participant who did not participate in many of the intervention activities and stayed away from the group did not see these improvements.

It is possible that the benefits arose from the psychiatric support that the participants had while watching the documentary. However, each participant had years of experience working with psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health support workers, but continued to struggle deeply.

This suggests that the intervention offers additional benefits over usual mental health care.

Studies suggest that positive psychological interventions can increase well-being and reduce symptoms of depression.

However, we do not know how positive psychological interventions alone compare to usual mental health care. We also have no evidence of adding positive psychology to standard mental health treatment.

Positive psychological interventions have mainly been used in humans without moderate to severe mental illness. In fact, one of the extraordinary parts of this experiment was adding positive psychology to the typical caring for humans With moderate to severe mental illness.

what can we learn

The documentary suggests several important ways to support mental health and well-being.

1. Find your tribe

Throughout the documentary, the participants developed a community. Humans have a natural need to belong. In contrast, loneliness relates to mental and physical illness and even early death. Find people to belong with and connect on a deep level, beyond superficial “friends”.

2. Participate in meaningful activities

Studies suggest that engagement in life is an important marker of healthy aging. That doesn’t just mean gliding through life, but sucking the marrow out of life. It’s about finding and engaging in activities that fill you up and give you a sense of life, rather than ones that deprive you of life.

3. Be compassionate

Be compassionate towards yourself and others. We are often our own worst critics. We do our best. Be kind to yourself and extend that kindness to others.

4. Be optimistic

Be optimistic and hopeful for the future. Things won’t always work out, but if we’re biased to seeing the possibility of what could be, the results might surprise us.

5. Groom yourself

Promote your physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. Eat well and get good rest, engage in moderate physical activity, and actively participate in activities that make you feel and function well.

But be careful

Positive psychological interventions are far from a panacea. As part of the documentary, they only worked for those who actively participated in the interventions and networked well with others.

Each participant was dealing with one or more mental illnesses. Positive psychology, then, was not a substitute for conventional psychiatric care. They went hand in hand.

While the documentary presents a hopeful story of recovery, it’s important to get in touch with additional forms of support, including your family doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, if you’re struggling with a mental illness.

If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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