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‘Happy New You’ – showcasing psychology or keeping us in our comfort zone?

September 6th, 2007

Dr Petra

A while back I blogged about a venture between the British Psychological Society and Top Sante magazine. The BPS paid Top Sante to include a free psychology magazine called ‘Happy New You’ in a venture that encouraged psychologists and journalists to work collaboratively.

My criticisms at the time were that we should be doing this already, and that paying a magazine to carry psychological topics perhaps wasn’t the best use of time or money when working with the media.

Shortly after this the Women’s Section of the British Psychological Society complained that the collaboration had been harmful rather than helpful. They claimed instead of including cutting edge psychological theories and top experts the collaboration appeared to simply replicate existing tired media coverage and reinforce gender inequalities. The Women’s Section were particularly concerned that the collaboration between the BPS and Top Sante produced a magazine that overemphasised the need for therapy and encouraged women to see their lives as inherently stressful (which could of course be ‘cured’ by shopping).

The latest edition is now on sale, so I thought I’d take a look and see if any of the criticisms raised at the venture had been taken on board.

I participated in the latest edition of the magazine. And it made for an interesting experience. I was called by a freelancer writing for the ‘Happy New You’ supplement who’d read some American research that claimed if you have lots of sex “hormones come out your brain” (her words) which makes you feel happier. So she wanted me to say how we should all “try harder to have more sex” as a means to making ourselves have more hormones and feel happier. I explained how telling people they ought to be having more sex may increase anxieties and perhaps a more ethical way forward would be to point out how people’s sex lives vary and that having more or less sex during different times in your life is normal. She disagreed and said she wanted a psychologist to enforce the message that making yourself have sex, even when you didn’t want to, was the way forward.

Normally when this happens I can try and reach an editor and put them straight, but my attempts at this have got me precisely nowhere in the past, and it takes up a lot of time. On this occasion though I called the BPS directly, explained how the freelancer had misunderstood the research and suggested an alternative story they could use.

The BPS contacted the deputy editor and they in turn talked to me. It turned out the sex piece they wanted covering was for their news section so it was to be very short. There was no way they could do justice to the hormones/brain/more sex story they’d proposed, so I provided them with a short news snippet on the 237 reasons for having sex research that was out at the time. I’ve nothing against covering sex research on hormones or other physiological issues but do feel if they’re going to be based on poor science or misunderstood by the person who’s writing the story then there’s no point in covering them.

The whole experience was a quick and positive one. I was on hand to give an alternative snippet and it’s appeared accurately in the latest edition.

Which is great. Although – and of course there has to be an although with me, doesn’t there? I can’t help thinking this is how working with the media should be. If an expert is contacted and they point out a story is going down the wrong track or is based on an inaccurate or outdated idea then this should be heard and acted upon by the journalist and editorial team. What tends to happen (and what would have happened even in this case if I’d not called the BPS) is journalists will search until they find someone who’ll endorse their angle rather than go with something more interesting and accurate that can be swiftly provided.

I went through the supplement to see if the criticisms from other psychologists (including the Women’s Section) had been heard, and it seems not. The supplement contains several features all on the happiness theme with stories like ‘can pampering help depression?’ (apparently yes according to research from the Cosmetic and Perfumery Association – that bastion of rigorous scientific research). On a positive note within the story there is the promotion of a scheme to use makeovers to help women with cancer feel better, but this still taps into the idea that depression or stress can be ‘cured’ with a bath or a new hairdo.

Elsewhere in the supplement we learn autumn is a ‘natural mood booster’ (because negatively charged air particles present after rain make us feel happier). You can be your own therapist by finding ‘practical solutions for problems and confront any fears’, and also discover how people use donuts to suppress their emotions (this is illustrated with a picture of a cupcake with stress written on it just in case you’d not got the message). Alongside this feature is an amazing application of evidence into practice where a psychologist explains men don’t want you to diet because ‘it’s got bugger all to do with him worrying about you becoming more attractive – it’s because he doesn’t want to eat salad!’. Quite.

The supplement also has longer features about how to find the ‘real you’ which looks at why women who are housewives and new mums feel invisible. Rather than challenging cultural and gender inequalities that might offer some explanation and solutions the readers are instead given some general tips on how to continue in their role without feeling so stressed by it (e.g. cuddle your child and leave the cleaning for later). Three case studies are analysed by a psychologist which seems at odds with the BPS’s specific ethical guidance that we’re not supposed to directly talk about case studies.

You can learn from ‘Happy New You’ how to be happier, debate whether stress can be a good thing, assess if you’re ‘having a breakdown or just need a break?’ and also discover how to look good naked. In many of the features psychologists who are BPS members do feature, but in much of the supplement space is given to self appointed ‘experts’ with no qualifications in psychology or any other field apparently (but inevitably with their own websites, businesses or products to promote).

In general the supplement does contain more contributions from psychologists than other magazines (although psychologists are a staple of most publications nowadays). The use of psychological theory is very low though, and the range of features tend to be the same old stuff that we see in most women’s magazines. Women’s lives are constructed as busy, stressful, difficult and a challenge. Women’s media makes out we have to balance our body insecurities and low sex drives with trying to keep a partner happy and our home and kids in order. Rather than using theory or evidence that challenges some of these unhelpful gender stereotypes (that frankly don’t help women or men) ‘Happy New You’ just rehearses well-used narratives that don’t really make use of the amazing range of evidence psychology has to offer.

Although I had a positive experience contributing to the supplement my anxieties about it still stand. I feel the BPS wasted money putting together a supplement that has been driven more by the magazine than psychologists. The application of theory and use of quality information is absent, and the focus tends to be rather dreary and pedestrian. Which is not okay given the amount of money and time poured into what was supposed to be a collaborative effort that would showcase the best psychology had to offer to the public.

I still feel the BPS should be working with editors to ensure they understand what psychology is – and what it can and can’t do. There is a lot of work to be done to get stories on the right track and to give experts the power to help journalists do that.

I’m not so naive as to assume we have to fill any magazine created by psychologists with a lot of dull theory, but since psychology is often so badly represented in the media it’s a shame when rather than giving access to some of the more exciting theories we have to offer, the public are given the same-old-same-old. Naturally editors are going to argue they know what their audience wants, and will need to reinforce the focus of their magazine as a brand. However if you’re paying to produce a feature (as the BPS did here) then surely you can create your own angles and test out whether the public actually might like some new views. My guess is they would, but here was a missed opportunity to test this.

Sadly I feel ‘Happy New You’ hasn’t moved either psychologists or the media outside of their comfort zones. Given we’re supposed to be bringing evidence to the public and psychology to society the venture hasn’t been a success. Sure, it’s brought a certain kind of psychology to the public, but if the highlight of your venture is to suggest that you can banish the blues with a bit of pampering frankly it’s letting down psychology, journalism and readers.

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