How can people best be encouraged to do what’s good for them? Dr Tamlin Conner of the Department of Psychology is exploring a range of interventions to improve well-being among Otago students and the wider community.
Helping people affect positive changes in their lives is at the heart of Dr Tamlin Conner’s research into well-being.
“I do research that tries to alleviate suffering and also seeks to improve well-being – to take people from the neutral midpoint to the positive end of the illness-wellness continuum,” she says.
"It’s important to recognise that just because you're not suffering doesn’t mean you are getting the most you can out of life."
"Cultivating behaviours that improve positive mood – like improved diet, mindfulness training and creativity – can help build resilience. Cultivating positive states allows you to recover from daily stressors more quickly.”
Conner has many different strands of research that come under the umbrella of increasing well-being, including studying the links between nutrition and well-being, reducing student binge drinking, and mobile phone-based interventions to improve wellness.
“Well-being intersects with so many different areas, which makes it interesting to me,” she says. “We study these things in isolation, but nothing is in isolation. Healthy behaviours and happiness tend to travel along together. Unhealthy behaviours – and sadness – travel together as well.”
Intervention is a key theme of Conner’s current research.
“I’ve gone from just observing and measuring predictors of well-being to try and intervene to improve well-being. But I’ve lost confidence in informational messages translating into behaviours.”
For example, one of Conner’s recent studies found that a group of students who were provided with fruit and vegetables over a two-week period showed increases in well-being, in contrast to a second group given informational messages plus vouchers to buy produce, and a third group who were just given the money.
“Even paying people wasn’t enough to get people to eat their 5+ servings of fruit and vegetables per day. We had to actually give the people the produce to eat. The take-home message is clear – people who provide food to others should include more fruits and vegetables whenever possible. I think more can be done in institutional settings.”
Conner is now collaborating with Professor Margreet Vissers (University of Otago, Christchurch) on a study testing whether eating gold kiwifruit can improve well-being and if it is explained through the vitamin C content in the fruit.
She is also exploring how mobile phone interventions can help modify behaviours.
“Mobile phones are useful tools for modifying behaviour. They are integrated with our daily lives and can remind us of our goals during moments of weakness.”
In one such project, Conner is collaborating with Dr Damian Scarf and PhD student Ben Riordan to help reduce binge drinking at “high risk” times such as Orientation Week, during which they sent out text messages to students in the evenings while they were preparing to go out. The messages that worked the best at reducing student drinking were about not being a burden to your friends that night.
In another study, Conner is collaborating with Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne and PhD student Jayde Flett on the use of mindfulness apps to help students cope with the challenges of university life.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention to what one is experiencing in the present moment without judging it,” says Conner. “It has been shown to reduce stress, reduce anxiety and improve symptoms of depression.”
In this study, students were given access to two meditation apps – Headspace or Smiling Mind – or a control app – for 10 days. Students who used the mindfulness apps, but not the control app, showed improvements in stress and depressive symptoms as long as they continued using them.
"My work has a real-world element. I’m intervening in the flow of people’s everyday lives. They’re using mobile apps in their homes or in the library…wherever they choose to do it."
Conner is hoping her research will be used to affect positive change for people on a wider scale, through policy recommendations or guidelines for individuals and organisations.
“At this stage in my career, the application of research is important to me,” she says.
“We know that certain interventions work and the effective tools that people can use. The questions now for the future are: How can we help people use these tools? How can we get people to improve their lives and stick to it?”
- University of Otago Research Grant
- Health Research Council, Emerging Researcher First Grant
- Zespri International
- Office of the Vice-Chancellor (mindfulness research)