Simple activities such as gardening or mending a bicycle can protect mental health and help people to lead more fulfilled and productive lives, a panel of scientists has found.
Do five simple things a day to stay sane, say scientists
Mark Henderson, Science Editor
A “five-a-day” programme of social and personal activities can improve mental wellbeing, much as eating fruit and vegetables enhances physical health, according to Foresight, the government think-tank. Its Mental Capital and Wellbeing report, which was compiled by more than 400 scientists, proposes a campaign modelled on the nutrition initiative, to encourage behaviour that will make people feel better about themselves.
People should try to connect with others, to be active, to take notice of their surroundings, to keep learning and to give to their neighbours and communities, the document says.
Its advice to “take notice” includes suggestions such as “catch sight of the beautiful” and “savour the moment, whether walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends”. Examples of learning include mending a bike or trying to play a musical instrument.
Tips to stay sane are based on hard evidence“A big question in mental wellbeing is what individuals can do,” Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, who led part of the project, said. “We found there are five categories of things that can make a profound difference to people’s wellbeing. Each has evidence behind it.” These actions are so simple that everyone should aim to do them daily, she said, just as they are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables.
Critics of the recommendation said that the Government and health professionals ought not to be prescribing individual behaviour in this way. “The implication is that if you don’t do these banal things, you could get seriously mentally ill, and that trivialises serious mental illness. What is happiness, anyway? It’s so subjective,” Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, said.
Although the report has no immediate policy implications, ministers will pay attention to it because Foresight is headed by the Government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington.
The project investigated ways of improving the nation’s “mental capital”, which Professor Beddington likened to a bank account of the mind. “We need to ask what actions can add to that bank account, and what activities can erode that capital,” he said.
Among the other issues it highlights is a strong link between mental illness and debt. Half of people in Britain who are in debt have a mental disorder, compared with just 16 per cent of the general population.
Rachel Jenkins, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who led this section of the report, said: “We’ve known for a while there’s a link between mental health issues and low income, but what more recent research has shown is that that relationship is probably mostly accounted for by debt.”
The report advocates more flexible working, days after Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, announced a review of government plans to extend such arrangements.
Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the University of Lancaster, a co-ordinator of the report, said: “People who choose to work flexibly are more job-satisfied, healthier and more productive.”
Steps to happinessConnect
Developing relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours will enrich your life and bring you support
Sports, hobbies such as gardening or dancing, or just a daily stroll will make you feel good and maintain mobility and fitness
Noting the beauty of everyday moments as well as the unusual and reflecting on them helps you to appreciate what matters to you
Fixing a bike, learning an instrument, cooking – the challenge and satisfaction brings fun and confidence
Helping friends and strangers links your happiness to a wider community and is very rewarding
Source: Foresight report
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