Promoting subjective well-being: A mass participation approach
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hertfordshire
Unit of AssessmentPsychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Summary of the impact
Professor Richard Wiseman has conducted several mass participation
experiments. He has employed this approach to create high-profile projects
in order to help communicate key findings from academic psychology to the
public. This case study focuses on one such initiative. In 2009, `The
Science of Happiness' project involved over 20,000 members of the public
carrying out a series of evidence-based exercises designed to boost
subjective well-being. Participant feedback revealed that the exercises
had a significantly beneficial effect. The reach of this work was greatly
increased by reports in the national media and a popular psychology book.
Richard Wiseman currently holds Britain's only Professorship in the
Public Understanding of Psychology. This involves an innovative form of
public engagement that combines undertaking scholarly research and
engaging the public with the results via television, radio, public
lectures and appearances, mass-market publications, the Internet and
A key part of his research entails conducting mass participation studies.
This work began in 1995 with an innovative collaboration between Wiseman
and BBC1's Tomorrow's World programme, BBC Radio 1, and the Daily
Telegraph. To celebrate National Science Week, Wiseman was asked to
design a large-scale study that could be run across three different
platforms: television, radio and print. Professor Wiseman created `The
MegaLab Truth Test'. He interviewed the well-known political commentator
Sir Robin Day twice: in one interview, Day told the truth, and in the
other he lied. These interviews were then shown on BBC1 and played on
Radio 1. The transcripts of the interviews were also published in the Daily
Telegraph. Members of the public were asked to watch, listen or read
the interviews and identify the lie. Previous research from several
laboratories had suggested that verbal cues are superior to visual cues
(in part, because they tend to be much harder to consciously control) and
thus the radio listeners and newspaper readers would outperform the
television viewers. This proved to be the case: over 30,000 people
participated in the study, with television viewers being least able to
detect the lie. This work was published in Nature, and in
subsequent years Wiseman devised several other `MegaLab' experiments.
Since then, Wiseman has conducted additional large-scale studies in
collaboration with many other organisations, including the Edinburgh
International Science Festival, the Cheltenham Science Festival, Channel 4
and the British Science Association. This work has involved developing
many different methods of data delivery and collection, including the use
of traditional media, live events, the Internet, social media, and
smartphone apps. For example, in 2002 Wiseman created `The Mind Machine',
an interactive kiosk that presented participants with a virtual
coin-tossing task, and examined the relationship between their responses
and superstitious beliefs. This kiosk toured the UK and collected data
from over 30,000 participants, with the results suggesting that those who
tended to be especially superstitious exhibited significantly higher
levels of unrealistic optimism prior to the task, and greater amounts of
confirmation bias afterwards.
Wiseman's most recent work in this area has focused on the Internet as a
platform for the delivery of experimental stimuli and collection of data.
In 2005, he ran a large-scale Internet study into personality and
chronopsychology (25,000 participants), and in 2010 teamed up with New
Scientist magazine to conduct the first psychology experiment via
the social media site Twitter. The first of these studies revealed that
self-perceived luckiness was significantly higher among summer-borns than
winter-borns, whilst the second study failed to find any evidence to
support an alleged paranormal phenomenon known as `remote viewing'.
Employing his considerable expertise in conducting mass participation
studies for scholarly and public engagement purposes, Wiseman has created
other, similarly high-profile projects to help communicate key findings
from academic psychology to the public. A typical example, the Science of
Happiness Project, is described in section 4.
References to the research
Wiseman, R. (1995). The MegaLab Truth Test, Nature, 373, 391.
Wiseman, R. (1996). `MegaLabUK': Participatory science and the mass
media. Public Understanding of Science, 5 (2), 167-69. doi:
Wiseman, R. and Greening, E. (2002). The mind machine: A mass
participation experiment into the possible existence of extrasensory
perception. British Journal of Psychology, 93 (4), 487-99. doi:
Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Stevens, P., Greening, E. and O'Keeffe, C. (2003).
An investigation into alleged `hauntings'. British Journal of
Psychology, 94 (2), 195-211. doi: 10.1348/000712603321661886
Chotai, J. and Wiseman, R. (2005). Born lucky? The relationship between
feeling lucky and month of birth. Personality and Individual
Differences, 39 (8), 1451-60. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.06.012
Wiseman R., and Watt C. (2010). Judging a book by its cover: The
unconscious influence of pupil size on consumer choice. Perception,
39 (10), 1417-19. doi: 10.1068/p6834
— This publication is listed in REF 2
Wiseman R., and Watt C. (2010). `Twitter' as a new research tool: A mass
participation test of remote viewing. European Journal of
Parapsychology, 25, 89-100. Link to article: http://ejp.wyrdwise.com/EJP%20v25.pdf
Details of the impact
The Science of Happiness Project
Using Professor Wiseman's participative approach, this 2009 project was a
large-scale initiative designed to help boost subjective wellbeing. Before
its launch, an opportunistic sample (N=786) of participants was recruited
from the general public via a social media campaign. Acting as
participant-informants, they aided the project's design by identifying
some of the key attributes that Internet-based happiness interventions
needed to possess if they were to have mass appeal.
Participants were then asked to imagine that there was a psychological
technique that provided a small but real boost to their happiness (e.g.,
writing down the things in their life for which they had a sense of
gratitude), and that they were going to be taught the technique via the
Internet. Next, they were asked to indicate the preferred mode of delivery
used to explain the technique (text, video or both), how long they would
be prepared to spend reading or listening to these instructions, how long
they would be prepared to spend carrying out the technique, and how
quickly they would want the exercise to have some form of impact.
The majority of participants indicated that they would like the exercise
to be delivered via both video and text, that they would be willing to
spend up to 10 minutes learning about the exercise and up to 10 minutes
carrying it out, and that they would like to feel some kind of impact
within a few days.
Wiseman then reviewed laboratory studies (including those by
psychologists Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, and
Sonja Lyubomirsky from University of California, Riverside) that had
experimentally examined various techniques designed to promote subjective
well-being, and used the participant feedback from the development phase
to select four approaches: the recognition of gratitude (encouraging
people to identify aspects of their life for which they have a sense of
gratitude), acts of kindness (encouraging people to help a friend or
stranger), facial feedback (encouraging people to smile and so induce the
emotion associated with that expression), and positive recollection
(encouraging participants to reflect on a positive life event).
Wiseman created short videos describing each of the techniques. To help
assess the efficacy of the exercises he also created a control task (in
which participants were asked to merely think about the events of the day
before) and prepared a film to accompany this exercise.
The project was promoted via interviews in the national press and radio.
Members of the public were asked to visit the project website and discover
more about the initiative; over 20,000 people decided to take part. Before
being allocated an exercise, each participant was asked to complete
various measures of their happiness, including a standard measure of
subjective well-being, the `Subjective Happiness Scale' (SHS), a
psychometrically validated scale commonly used in several studies
assessing the impact of happiness interventions.
Participants were then randomly allocated one of the four exercises or
the control task and asked to complete it on a daily basis for a week. At
the project's end participants were asked to report how easy they found
the exercise and how often they had completed it. They were also asked to
complete various measures of happiness a second time, including the SHS.
The results revealed that the techniques were highly effective (see
section 5, `Technical Report'). For example, around 42% of those in the
control group reported increased happiness, compared to around 55% of
those in each of the treatment conditions. The `positive recollection'
exercise was especially effective.
Various activities extended the reach of the project by disseminating the
project results and the `happiness techniques' identified as being
effective to a wider audience:
- The results were reported in the national press, including articles in
the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Guardian.
- The videos used in the experiment were placed on YouTube and have
received over 50,000 views in total.
- The exercises were reported in Wiseman's best-selling book on popular
psychology, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot
(2009). This book has sold over 200,000 copies in the UK, and been
translated into over 20 languages. The book has received a positive
reception, including the following appraisals:
`A triumph of scientifically proven advice over misleading myths of
self-help. Challenging, uplifting and long overdue.'— Derren Brown.
`The practical advice to be found on every page of 59 Seconds is vivid,
accessible, and refreshing. It's the perfect antidote to the vague vacuous
nonsense crowding the shelves of self-help bookshops.' — Sam Gosling
(Psychologist, University of Texas)
`Imagine taking thousands of papers from the vast world of psychology and
distilling them down to the most important, unexpected, salient and
straightforward lessons for how to live our lives. That's Wiseman's book.'
— David Eagleman (Director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action,
Baylor College of Medicine).
Sources to corroborate the impact
Richard Wiseman, `Developing internet-based happiness interventions with
mass appeal: Two initial studies', University of Hertfordshire, 2010.
— A copy of this internal post-project Technical Report, detailing the
methodology and results of the Science of Happiness public participation
exercise, is available on request.
`How thinking of yesterday can make you happy today', Mail Online,
12 August 2009:
`Scientists announce mass participation experiment to cheer up the UK', Science
Daily website, 1 August 2009: <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090731090009.htm>
Chris Irvine, `Thinking of something good that happened the day before
boost happiness', Telegraph (Science news), 12 August 2009:
Katie Scott, `The science of happiness: what makes Britain smile', Wired,
12 August 2009:
Sam Wong, `Reasons to be cheerful: Study gives happiness techniques
thumbs up', Guardian (Science news), 12 August 2009:
Videos explaining the four `happiness' exercises found to be effective
are available on YouTube: <http://www.youtube.com/user/In59seconds>
Press and other reviews of 59 Seconds (including the Derren Brown
quote used in section 4) are available from the Amazon website:
Further reviews, including those by Gosling and Eagleman quoted in
section 4, can be found on the Random House website, 59 Seconds
Written confirmation of book sales figures for 59 Seconds is
available on request