By Lauren Donley
If we offer the science of happiness to people experiencing struggle, what difference would it make?
This is the fundamental question at the centre of How to Thrive – an uplifting documentary film by Yarraville locals and first-time filmmakers, Duy Huynh (Director/Writer/Producer) and Andrew Kelly (Producer).
Recently premiering at the Sun Theatre during Mental Health Week, the film follows seven participants with mental ill-health, and sets out to create change by offering interventions grounded in positive psychology. Basically, the things that are going well in life, rather than the issues, problems and disorders.
Thriving versus surviving
As Duy explains, How to Thrive is inspired by his own connection to adversity and struggle as a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian refugee. “Our family literally arrived in Australia with the clothes on our backs, through a very traumatic boat situation, and in refugee camps for 12 months, which in itself was quite a sub-human experience.”
For many of his family and friends living in and around Footscray, this experience left a lasting legacy of mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse. But for Duy, watching those around him struggle set him on a different path and filled him with an appreciation of life, and compassion for the vulnerable.
He says: “I count myself lucky from the experience because I didn’t have mental health issues related to that trauma. It made me wonder why some people can go through adversity and come out the other end okay, while in others it creates more long-term mental health challenges.”
Is there a secret formula for happiness?
Digging deeper into these themes of health and happiness, Duy and Andrew connected with Marie McLeod, a positive psychologist with a shared vision for a world in which health, happiness and thriving skills are accessible to all. As the project gathered momentum, they were joined by Dr Peggy Kern – an internationally recognised expert in measuring wellbeing and its impact on life trajectory.
Filming began in March 2020 with a two-day retreat where the seven participants (or the ‘Thrive Tribe’) met face-to-face. Putting this timing into context, Andrew says: “We started shooting unknowingly on that first lockdown weekend – and then all the participants came back to this zombie apocalypse where there was no toilet paper on the shelves!”
At the retreat, the Thrive Tribe participants were introduced to a range of mental health strategies based on the ‘BEACON’ framework. Not only a metaphor for bringing light to darkness, BEACON also represents six evidence-based pillars of wellbeing:
Over the next 18 months, the participants made major changes in their lives, and worked towards building skills, resources and motivation to live well. All were measured on their levels of psychological, physical and social wellbeing throughout the program.
Finding a happy medium
At the start of the program, participants scored an average of −3.2 on a mental health scale, indicating sub-optimal mental health and distress. After eight months implementing the BEACON strategies, average scores improved to +5.4 – an almost nine-point gain, where an improvement of just two points would have been considered a significant outcome.
Although the sample size is small, it’s particularly compelling that participants continued to increase and sustain their wellbeing over a period of 18 months – despite traveling through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So while there’s still more work to be done to fully unlock that elusive secret formula to happiness, Duy and Andrew might just have teased out a few key ingredients, while also building a few life skills of their own along the way!
Duy says: “It’s quite a big achievement to have made a film – not many people get to do that. Every day we’re grateful for what we’re allowed to do. And that reminds us through the tough times that it’s all worth it.
Please note that the interventions discussed in this article are not a replacement for professional medical care.
If you’re struggling with mental ill-health, contact your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14
Want to learn How to Thrive?
Go to: www.howtothrivefilm.com
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