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Happiness training is breaking down barriers for social housing tenants

Reclined on a summer deck chair in Haptivate’s Camden studio, discussing breathing techniques with the company’s co-founders, James Pacey and Rosa Connor, it’s easy to see why housing association One Housing approached them to run wellbeing workshops for their tenants.

Haptivate aims to go beyond the usual CV writing and interview skills classes traditionally seen as the gateway into employment, which although useful, don’t necessarily do much for other critical functions such as confidence, self-esteem and happiness.

Haptivate now operates a wellbeing training centre at Arlington House, the UK’s largest homeless hostel, offering wellbeing workshops for One Housing tenants and staff as well as targeted workshops for the unemployed to lead happier and healthier lives.

Normalising wellbeing

One Housing, who manage 17,000 properties across the capital, approached Haptivate after seeing Rosa’s work teaching mindfulness on housing estates.

Her sessions were initially met with some scepticism.

‘I’d say to young people, “Let’s do some breathing but they’d say — no, no, no, that’s not for me!”’

However, she’d find that more often than not, they’d return for more sessions as they began to learn about the small changes they could make to improve their wellbeing.

‘It’s about getting people into the room and not coming in with your yoga gear and Zen vibes!’ she says.

‘Wellbeing and mood affect everybody and you can see instant results straight away. You can see the impact.’

Haptivate’s methodology is based on the ‘science of happiness’, developed in the United States and includes the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology mixed in with mindfulness and yoga sessions. James and Rosa say it’s all about ‘normalising’ wellbeing.

They’ve created targeted workshops for groups and run sessions once a week at their studio after One Housing offered them discounted commercial space on the building.

‘There already is an existing wellbeing industry and mental health support and a lot of people could benefit from this kind of support but don’t feel comfortable with these formats,’ says Rosa.

‘They might be put off going to a yoga studio or learning how to meditate because they think it’s for a certain demographic,’ adds James.

‘Or they feel a stigma around accessing mental health support. We’ve tried to set up something that’s in the middle and is much more scientifically focused and accessible.’

Poor mental health

Research by the Economic Social Research Council found that people living in both the social rented sector and private rented sector are more likely to experience poor mental health than homeowners.

It’s often a negative cycle that feeds itself and makes it much more difficult to find employment.

The government also recently intervened and last summer published a green paper that looked at ways to remove the ‘stigma’ associated with living in social housing to improve mental health and employment prospects.

As was revealed by Mind when it spoke with NewStart last September, the charity is currently calling for the government to collect better data on social housing and mental health, and to place mental health at the heart of its social housing strategy by protecting and improving existing social housing.

Rosa and James praise One Housing for their holistic approach to tenant wellbeing and thinking differently about how to break the negative cycle of poor housing and mental health.

‘It’s a big shift they’ve taken,’ says Rosa.

‘They understand that a lot of issues people have are with wellbeing, and they’ve taken what we do and embedded it in their employment and training programme.’

James says a large amount of what they are trying to do is breaking down preconceptions around wellbeing, with many people feeling uncomfortable with the concept or uncertain how to access support.

Rosa has spent a lot of time working on estates in Hackney, an area that has been at the coal face of gentrification in London in recent years. She says many people will associate wellness and yoga studios with rising rents and middle-class tastes, leading some communities to look at wellbeing as something not for them. As a concept, some even resent it.

‘There’s a big cultural aspect to wellbeing and they think they can’t go to these places because it’s intimidating.’

‘To them, wellness is inaccessible and a luxury. If you’re in a state of poverty you’re going to think about survival. You’re not really going to be thinking about how can I be ‘well’ on top of it.

‘But mental health and wellbeing connects everyone. Everyone wants to be happy.

‘We do work with corporates and they have so much money but are so unhappy!’

Stimulus and the knowledge

Since 2010 we have almost become immune to news of youth centres closing or mental health services being cut.

But bit by bit, each one has stripped away and contributed to the mental health crisis that Rosa and James see in London every day.

However, they’re optimistic that it can improve if we start to view wellness as a barometer of success, rather than material possessions or status.

‘If you have a sense of community, personal growth for yourself and purpose, you’re more likely to be happy in the long run. That’s where this societal culture has an impact on wellbeing,’ says James.

‘Everyone has the potential, but it’s about having the stimulus and knowledge.

‘It would be a great thing to see society thinking about mental wellbeing in the same way as maintaining physical fitness.’

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