Positive psychology: A New Approach to Promoting Healthy Behaviour

We have long been aware that physical inactivity, poor diet, problem alcohol use and smoking have significant long-term health implications. However, reversing lifestyle trends which ultimately result in conditions such as obesity and heart disease, is widely challenging.

These health problems significantly reduce quality and length of life for people across the globe. With this in mind, it is important to develop novel strategies which can tackle one of the most pressing public health issues of our time.

An exciting and novel approach to this issue has drawn some interesting conclusions. As part of a collaboration between the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) Public Health Team and the School of Psychology at Bangor University, a PhD research project found positive psychology – the study of strengths and virtues which help people feel mentally well – can also promote healthy behaviour.

A particularly important insight was people who had purposeful and significant life goals were more likely to engage in physically healthy behaviour, even if these goals weren’t directly related to their physical health.

This project, which began in 2016, was one of the first of its kind, and was joint funded by Awyr Las, and a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS 2).

Dr Rhi Willmot, who led the PhD said:

“The results suggest tools which help people improve their mental wellbeing, such as reflective journaling and goal setting, can also support healthy lifestyle behaviour. It was a pleasure to be part of this collaboration and to investigate how the substantial burden of lifestyle driven health conditions can be relieved.”

Prof Rob Atenstaedt, consultant in public health medicine at BCUHB public health team commented:

“This is one area of academic study that has been crying out for more research. I believe that this project makes a significant contribution to new evidence. Our team will be looking at how we can apply the findings to everyday public health practice in North Wales.”

Over a three year period, six studies were conducted with participants from the local community, runners at Penrhyn Parkrun, and students at Bangor University. These included the investigation of a daily journaling exercise designed to help them identify personally important goals, and a task which involved thinking about the world in ‘low level’ or ‘bigger picture’ terms, before making decisions about eating and exercise.

Professor John Parkinson, who supervised the project commented:

“The results of this PhD represent a significant and original contribution to both the theoretical knowledge base and development of public policy. I hope collaboration between Bangor University and Public Health Wales can continue in order to produce innovative and well-informed insights for science and practice.”

Penny Dowdney, KESS 2 Wales Manager, said: “it’s hugely satisfying to see the results of this collaborative research, funded under KESS 2, supported by European Social Fund (ESF) through the Welsh Government. This is an excellent example of collaborative research working well”.

You can read a brief report of the work here.

Originally published on the Bangor University news page, 22 January 2020: