Until now, care for vulnerable groups has always tended to be problem-oriented. An effective alternative approach is to ask these people how they perceive well-being, passion and intrinsic motivation.
This is the conclusion reached by behavioural scientist Laura Weiss in her PhD thesis. Weiss will be awarded her PhD by the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences of the University of Twente (Institute for Innovation and Governance Studies - IGS) on Thursday 13 October.
For her PhD thesis ‘Direction: Happiness. Improving well-being of vulnerable groups’, Laura Weiss researched the so-called ‘Happiness Route’. The approach focuses on a group of vulnerable people who are at risk of having a low level of well-being: lonely people who have a low socio-economic status, and suffer from chronic health problems. Weiss says ‘At the moment, care focuses on identifying and treating problems and complaints, but our research has shown that this approach is inadequate for those who are particularly vulnerable. Many of these people are no longer able to work due to multiple chronic conditions such as rheumatism and diabetes. As a result, they become socially isolated. They also become increasingly dependent on care, and are unable to move forward in life.”
The Happiness Route gives participants the opportunity to find out what they are passionate about, together with a professional consultant. Everyone has their own passion - some people enjoy painting, while others love music. Participants then take part in an activity related to their passion, for example, painting classes or piano lessons. As participants often have very few financial means, they are given a one-off grant of €500. Not everyone needs the grant, as some participants choose activities that are free, like voluntary work. The Happiness Route encourages people to be more active and helps them reintegrate into society, by focusing on their strengths, instead of what they can no longer do.
In a randomized study, 108 participants were divided into an intervention group, which took part in the happiness route, and a control group, which received traditional, problem-oriented care. At the end of the study, both groups reported an improvement in well-being and a decrease in symptoms of depression and feelings of loneliness. But in other respects, the Happiness Route was clearly more effective, claims Weiss. “Those who participated in the Happiness Route were more satisfied with the contact they had with the consultant, and the way in which they were approached. A much greater proportion of these participants reported positive effects.”
The changes that were observed and reported in an interview study confirm the self-determination theory in Positive Psychology, says Weiss. “People need autonomy, skills and contact with others. Taking part in an activity gives them the opportunity to make their own decisions again, to use their talents, to develop their skills and to meet new people. We shouldn’t just focus on solving problems, we need to consider how we can help people feel better. Learning to decide what is right for their life can really give vulnerable people a proverbial push in the right direction.”
The happiness-based approach also ties in well with the reorientation of health and social policies, which involves a move towards self-management and citizen empowerment, claims Weiss. “All the policy documents state that people need to learn to use their own strength and autonomy. We have seen too little evidence of that so far. Yet it does work - it has even proved effective for vulnerable groups with low levels of well-being, for whom the traditional approach was inadequate.”