Adelaide Living

A state of wellbeing

Life can be challenging. We all know it but – as individuals and a city community – can we better equip ourselves to handle the ups and downs? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ from Gabrielle Kelly, Director of the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

Launched in 2015 inside the Mind and Brain Theme at SAHMRI, the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre (WRC) was the direct result of a visit to South Australia by Thinker in Residence, Professor Martin Seligman in 2012 and ‘13.

While here, he proposed that the science of positive psychology could be useful for reducing mental illness in the State and improving mental health. After testing the concept with professionals, teaching psychologists, psychiatrists, political leaders and the broader community, Professor Seligman recommended to the Premier of South Australia that we become one of first places in the world to both measure and build wellbeing at scale – that we create a ‘State of Wellbeing’. Well, it’s happening and City of Adelaide is very much on board.

So what is wellbeing and resilience? For Gabrielle, the terms go hand in hand.

Gabrielle Kelly, Director of the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre
Gabrielle Kelly, Director, Wellbeing and Resilience Centre

“Wellbeing is a sense of life satisfaction and happiness,” said Gabrielle. “I don’t mean ‘Pollyanna’ happiness, but a general sense of happiness in life that comes from having purpose, self-awareness and positive engagement with others. But you also need resilience to persist through challenges, recover after some difficult event and – as importantly – seize opportunity when it walks past you.”

It’s a simple equation. The more you build wellbeing and resilience the stronger and more effective you can be.

To measure wellbeing and resilience, WRC uses a framework called PERMA+, based on Professor Seligman’s original PERMA measurement tool – but with a few extra elements to provide a more holistic account.

“PERMA stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment,” said Gabrielle. “We’ve added the ‘plus’, being Physical Activity and Nutrition, Sleep and Realistic Optimism. If you build PERMA+, you are definitely going to build your wellbeing and resilience.”

City of Adelaide has always taken a strong interest in its residents’ health and wellbeing, but the work undertaken by the WRC made it clear Council could do more in the way of measurement, tracking and using the evidence attained to inform its ongoing work in the community. The wellbeing and resilience of the community is  identified as being as vital to the city as its growth.

City of Adelaide Wellbeing Measurement Project was a partnership with the WRC. Through it, city residents were invited in 2016 to take part in a PERMA+ survey so Council could establish a baseline measurement of wellbeing and resilience – particularly psychological wellbeing.

The findings, which revealed the overall mean (average) of PERMA for city residents was 7.2 – indicating a level slightly higher than the global average score of 7.1 – highlighted key areas where Council can focus its attention. Gabrielle is also confident the data will offer a great deal to the City’s agenda for enhancing Adelaide’s liveability.

“I think we are proud of being in a liveable city. We’re proud of our lifestyle and the safety of the community generally,” said Gabrielle. “(But) liveability is more than safety. It also connects to what kind of community you have and how you participate in community.”

“If you are surrounded by a whole community which has really taken seriously the question of, ‘Does my life have meaning?’, then that changes the fabric of the community you are in. If there are more people around you concerned with a sense of achievement – and I don’t mean being rich and famous, but achievement as a human being against your own personal life goals – then that is a different kind of community, and a real addition to liveability.

“By raising the PERMA+ of a community – improving physical health, mental health, optimism, levels of positive emotion – you are adding another whole band of possibility onto the shared understanding of liveability.”

City of Adelaide has begun building on the data collected from the PERMA+ survey but, while the city community will benefit broadly from any Council undertaking, what can individuals do to build their own resilience?

“Deliberately go and set about having more positive emotion,” said Gabrielle. “Check to see whether you have enough engagement in the work you’re doing, the relationships you have – your work and what you spend your time doing.

Gabrielle Kelly, Director of SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre
Gabrielle Kelly, Director of SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre

“Take a check on what the quality of your relationships is. Are you seeing your friends enough? Good, healthy relationships are really important if you want wellbeing in your life.”

Importantly, positive emotion has a way of ‘catching on’ and it improves physical as well as mental health.

Gabrielle’s best tip to building wellbeing and resilience? Give yourself a regular PERMA+ check and start with small steps.

“When you know your health, and other peoples, is served by smiling or expressing positive interest in others and that each small interaction of positive emotion just a few seconds long is doing you good, you start to do it more and it rubs off. You suddenly have community wide impact. Everybody starts moving towards a strength-based lens on the world, this is an antidote to a negative-framed mind, supporting a growth mindset in the community, open to new possibilities”.

Skye Murtagh

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