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Psychology, happiness and OUPS: an interview with Professor Neil Frude

Neil Frude is a consultant clinical psychologist, Research Director of the South Wales training course in clinical psychology and an External Professor in the University of South Wales. He has published a number of books on topics as diverse as family relations, violence, disruption in schools, statistical analysis and human interaction with computers. In 2003 Neil devised a book prescription scheme for mental health which has since become a national scheme in Wales, England and several other countries. In 2004 he embarked on ‘something completely different’ and appeared as a stand-up comedian for 16 nights at the Edinburgh Fringe in his show ‘The Language of Love and Lust’. In 2012 he cofounded “The Happiness Consultancy” which provides training and consultation in positive psychology. Neil is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of the British Association of Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapy. He has been a regular tutor at OUPS events for the past 20 years.

Interview by Lorna Rouse.

How did you first become interested in psychology ?

It’s down to my name. Frude is a very unusual surname and happens to be an anagram of ‘Freud’. When I was at school (in an all-boys Catholic school – that shaped me in a number of ways!) some of the older boys began calling me Freud as a tease. I had no idea who this guy was so I went to the public library and borrowed The Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. For a 13 year old this was heady stuff – all that libido and eros and Oedipal urges. Quite a change from Biggles, and much more interesting. So I read more of Freud and this began to influence how I understood the actions and personalities of my fellow students and the Christian Brothers who were my teachers (a lot of repressed sexual urges, and some not repressed enough). What I really got from reading Freud was the basic idea, which still fascinates me, that it is possible to understand ourselves and other people in systematic ways, through science and insight.

How did those interests develop over time?

I signed up for an evening class in psychology at the local “Worker’s Education Association” (in some respects, a forerunner of the Open University). A junior lecturer (who later became quite famous as a psychologist) came from a local university and gave a course of 10 lectures, none of which mentioned my hero Freud! So I saw another side of psychology, less stimulating hormonally but equally stimulating intellectually. By then I was sure that I wanted to do a degree in psychology and I went to Newcastle University. Towards the end of my course there I decided to specialize in clinical psychology and I trained in London at the Institute of Psychiatry (at the Maudsley Hospital). After qualifying as a clinical psychologist I moved to Cardiff to do a PhD. That was on “biofeedback” - the self -control of autonomic responses including heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductance. As soon as I’d finished that I gave up psychophysiology, became a lecturer and followed a very erratic and very enjoyable pathway of research interests. I did some work on smoking, then on human-computer interaction, then anxiety, then aggression, then family violence, then physical child abuse, then sexual abuse, then depression. This sounds a bit chaotic, and it was, but changing focus is how I manage to keep my interest and energy going. There are psychologists who spend 40 years researching the same topic in painstaking detail. That would drive me crazy. I get bored very easily (I’m a 99th percentile extravert) and I need to make frequent moves to new interests. I’m lucky that psychology is so incredibly broad in its scope and methods that I’ve been able to move from pillar to post without ever being seen as having lost the plot (as far as I know). I’ve tended to follow the Monty Python slogan: “… and now for something completely different”. Once when I was asked to give a talk at a university, one of the lecturers pointed to his bookshelf and to three books that I’d written, one about family problems, one about human interaction with robots and the other on SPSS. He suggested, in the nicest possible way, that I might have multiple personalities. Some parts of me were pleased at this suggestion.

What are your current interests?

After 30 years as an academic, the opportunity arose for me to supervise the research projects of students who were training for their doctorate in clinical psychology, so I left the university and joined the NHS. I had worked with various charities to provide a clinical service but now I was also able to see NHS clients again. The availability of psychological help for people with emotional problems is very limited indeed and this disturbed me a great deal. I had been lecturing for 30 years to undergraduates on the benefits and effectiveness of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) but I found that in the real world of the NHS at that time (2002) this type of help was only available to a very few people. I worked in a Community Mental Health Team with about 2000 people on the books, of whom 98% were on medication and only 40 (that’s 2%) receiving psychological treatment. The waiting list for psychological treatment was between one and two years.

A radical strategy was clearly needed in order to deliver more psychological treatment and I came up with the idea of delivering CBT through high quality selfhelp books written by specialist psychologists. Providing therapy through books is known as “bibliotherapy” and I devised a strategy for delivering bibliotherapy by means of a “book prescription scheme”. When people go to their GP with a mild or moderate mental health problem, the GP is able to prescribe a suitable book from a pre-set list of books that are stocked in public libraries as part of the scheme. A book prescription may be offered instead of a prescription for medication, or perhaps in addition to this. Following the implementation of the original scheme in Cardiff, it was rolled out as a national scheme in Wales (“Book Prescription Wales”) and this has now been operating for the past 10 years. Around 30,000 of the books on the list are borrowed from libraries every year, and similar (but more local) schemes have been introduced in Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand and several other countries. There have also been similar local schemes in England and in 2013 these were coordinated into a national scheme. My ‘invention’ of this mental health treatment strategy is acknowledged in an exhibition on the history of psychology currently on in the Science Museum in London. I didn’t know about this, but my son visited the museum and texted me “Hey, Dad, you’re in the exhibition”.

Along similar lines, I also have a strong interest in developing psycho-education packages for group delivery – a kind of “therapy by Powerpoint”. This is another way of getting the benefits of effective psychological interventions through to lots of people who would otherwise not be able to receive such treatment. Ultimately I hope that these resources can be made available much more widely through the internet. As well as disseminating traditional CBT to people who have emotional problems, psychoeducation can be used to help people to increase their wellbeing, happiness and resilience (all of which might well help to prevent the development of psychological problems). The new area of psychology known as “positive psychology” offers a great deal in this area and I want to explore ways of delivering this to maximum benefit. A couple of years ago at an OUPS event I met up with another positive psychology enthusiast, Jan Stannard, and together we set up “The Happiness Consultancy” (http:// www.thehappinessconsultancy.co.uk/) which offers training and consultancy on positive psychology topics (for example, employee engagement and resilience), mainly to commercial companies.

There are some very exciting implications of positive psychology for therapy, not only for people with psychological issues but also for people with physical illnesses and disabilities. I am now being invited to speak and train on this topic with health professionals from many areas, including stroke and cancer. The focus is on improving the quality of life through positive interventions. Increasing a sense of personal wellbeing has very significant benefits for people’s confidence, energy levels and motivation as well as for their mental health and their physical health. I have just written a chapter describing how knowledge gained from positive psychology research can be applied as “positive therapy” (Frude, 2014).

Can you tell me about your role with OUPS? How did you first become involved?

I go back long enough to have been very excited when the Open University was first proposed and then got off the ground in 1971. I was a tutor for some of the early courses, especially in social psychology. I also tutored a few summer schools and marked a fair quantity of exam scripts, but when I became head of psychology in Cardiff I had to give up my OU involvement. In those early days, I must confess, I had little awareness of OUPS.

Then in 1993 I was asked to give the closing talk at a national conference for PhD students being held in Cardiff. The stipulation was that, being the last talk, “it should be funny”. I almost turned down the invitation because it was a Saturday and also happened to be my birthday. Did I really want to spend my birthday giving a talk to a hundred PhD students? Well, I did it anyway. The talk was called “Getting a PhD – the Easy Way” and was a light-hearted guide to shortcuts that could be taken to make the whole process relatively easy. For example, I suggested that every PhD student should make sure that their thesis title contains either “neuro” or “cognitive” – preferably both – and that the title MUST include a colon. Thus an ideal title would be “The Social Contextualization of Knitting: A NeuroCognitive Study”. I said that external examiners of PhDs judged theses largely on the basis of the title. It was all tongue in cheek and played for laughs, of course, but I did actually smuggle in some good advice. The talk went down very well, with lots of laughter, as commissioned, and then at the end of the lecture one of the audience, a lady in her 70s, came up and thanked me. She also introduced herself as the President of OUPS and asked me if I’d be a guest speaker at the next event which was to be held at the University of Nottingham.

I said that I’d be pleased to do this, but I thought it unlikely that I would hear any more of it. However, I had underestimated the efficiency and determination of the lady who I now know to be Lilli Hvingtoft-Foster. She was indeed in her 70s and she was at that time completing a PhD in forensic psychology. Lilli is now in her 90s and is still the President of OUPS, although sadly she is no longer able to attend conferences for health reasons. But the current vigour of OUPS as an organization owes an enormous amount to Lilli’s formidable energy and enterprise sustained over many years.

So I gave my first OUPS talk in September 1994 – a Saturday night guest talk which I called “The Psychology of Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll”. I gave it that title in order to bring in some students, because there were two other talks on at the same time, both by renowned psychologists, and I wanted an audience. When I told the students who turned up that I wouldn’t be speaking about sex or drugs or rock n’ roll they were already seated and the doors were bolted, so I kept them. The lecture focussed on the gap between academic psychology and the emotional issues of people’s everyday life. It was well received and I was asked back again the next year to do another guest talk. This happened once more and then I was asked to adopt a regular tutor role – no longer the guest but now one of the family! I had enjoyed my OUPS experiences very much indeed and was delighted to join the crew. And I’ve been on board since that time, for the past 18 years, mostly teaching social psychology. In 2012, however, I gave up the social psychology teaching in order to engage with two new OUPS ventures – workshops on research methods and statistics which I do with Jim Handley (an ex-student, colleague and friend) and a taster for SDK228 (The Science of the Mind: Investigating Mental Health) which I do with Fred Toates (colleague and friend). I was delighted to be invited to be the external assessor for this course by the O.U. and I enjoyed making a contribution to the team discussions as the course was being developed. We ran the taster course for the first time last year and the students were really enthusiastic about it and felt that it gave them a real head start on the SDK228 course.

How do you think OUPS benefits OU psychology students?

I really believe that OUPS is incredibly valuable, partly because of the excellent teaching that it provides but also because it offers many opportunities for students to meet with others who are doing the same course. The weekends provide an opportunity for students to compare notes, to share anxieties and to engage in mutual reassurance. These informal aspects are very important. The fact that tutors are available for consultation throughout the weekend is another valuable feature. There are also opportunities for students to meet with people who are currently studying the courses that they intend to enrol for the following year and to find out what is involved. The bookstall gives people the chance to discover useful books that they might not otherwise have been aware of, and tutors are able to provide advice on careers in psychology and ways of continuing to study psychology through higher degrees. The July conferences bring in very high quality speakers and the subjects for these conferences are very well chosen. The lectures are invariably stimulating and these events provide a really important opportunity for people who have graduated to maintain their interest in psychology, and also to remain part of the OUPS fraternity.

As well as the national events, of course, there are also many regional events and I’m sure that these often seed highly supportive relationships between people who live relatively close to one another and are able to meet to discuss course issues. Overall, OUPS is a fantastic organization and provides a really valuable service. Time after time, students who attend the weekends say that their attendance in the previous year, for another course, made an enormous difference to their understanding of the course material and that it significantly enhanced “the bottom line” (i.e. their grade).

What do you get out of your involvement with OUPS?

In a word, happiness. I could also have said ‘wellbeing’ or ‘resilience’ (remember, I’m a positive psychologist). Let me explain. There are various researchderived formulae relating to what makes people happy. I’ll use the one from Martin Seligman (2012), the “father” (some might say the “Godfather”) of positive psychology. His formula is “PERMA” – that’s Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. My OUPS weekend events (two or three a year) are great “short breaks” for me. P – I get lots of positive emotion – I experience appreciation for the work I do, I have lots of fun and I experience the ‘buzz’ that I always get from teaching enthusiastic students. E - ‘Engagement’ – reading course materials and translating them into personal teaching resources, and then delivering these for between 6 to 12 hours over a weekend, requires focus, dedication and enthusiasm, at least if you’re going to do it well. R - the next element in the happiness formula is ‘Relationships’, and the weekends always involve many highly positive interactions with a range of people. As well as contacts with students, many of the OUPS committee are now my friends. Some of these I have known for well over a decade, so the weekends involve something of a “gathering of the clan”. M - ‘Meaning’ – well, that too. There’s no question of “Is this worth doing?” or “Am I being of any use?” Students are depending on you and it’s very uplifting to feel that you are being helpful. When Jim Handley and I teach our research methods courses for OUPS, we get a special satisfaction whenever we witness a “light bulb moment” whereby someone who has been struggling to understand a statistical concept eventually “gets it”. Squeals of delight in the classroom might be rare, but they are highly rewarding. A - And finally Accomplishment. Yes, I certainly get a sense of accomplishment when I have written a new block of teaching material or when I’ve delivered teaching over a weekend. So there it is – an analysis of how my involvement with OUPS contributes to my happiness – what’s not to like? (And did you notice that I slipped in a little lesson on positive psychology?)

What directions would you like to see OUPS take in the future?

I think that OUPS is great. And it’s incredible that everything is so wellplanned and so well-organized, always with an eye to possibilities for new ways of supporting students, by a committee that consists entirely of volunteers. Many committee members offer their services because they themselves benefitted from OUPS activities and feel that they want to put something back. Then, I think, their involvement gives them satisfaction (and PERMA happiness!) so that they stay on long after any ‘debt’ has been paid. People do come and go, of course, but many of the current committee have been around for quite a while and they are a really supportive, committed group of people who care a lot that students get the very best from the weekends and other events. They really do deserve a lot of credit for keeping the Society as strong as it is.

So I’m happy to leave it to the committee to steer the growth and development of the Society. They are very savvy about what might be possible, and are now having to navigate the events programme through difficult waters with the changes of course start dates. My main regret (which is shared by the committee) is that OUPS is not known to many students studying psychology in the O.U. People have to learn about its existence largely through word of mouth because there appears to be no way in which OUPS events can be advertised via official O.U. channels. This is such a pity, because so many more people could benefit. Hopefully, social media and messages posted by students who have enjoyed OUPS events will help to get the message out!

Have you had a favourite OUPS event?

There have been lots. I remember the 25th OUPS Anniversary event, held in Milton Keynes, and many of the July conferences (I’m normally teaching half time so I’ve been able to sit in on some memorable talks between my own teaching slots). I’ve also enjoyed attending and contributing to regional events in the north, south and the Midlands and, on one memorable occasion, in the Hague (students came from several European countries for a day on social psychology). If I had to choose a single event it would probably be the “Great Psychologists” conference which Richard Stevens organized in 2010. There were some great speakers and I was asked to do an amusing Saturday night talk as part of the conference (strangely reminiscent of how I started out with OUPS). My title was “How to Become a Great Psychologist” and I started by admitting that the only person who should be able to give such a talk would be someone who was him/herself a great psychologist. However, I explained, I did feel entitled to give such a talk because, although I am a not a great psychologist, I am at least an anagram of a great psychologist! And that’s where I came in!

References

Frude, N. (2014) Positive Therapy. In R. Nelson-Jones Theory and Practice of Counselling and Therapy. London: Sage (forthcoming).

Seligman, Martin (2011) Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 

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