The Happiness Festival in Dubai to focus on mental health

The Happiness Festival this weekend will bring together psychologists, wellness experts and therapists to discuss mental health issues and help people cope with daily stresses.

Fiona Barron and Saleem Ali, founders of The Happiness Festival, which begins in Dubai on Friday. Anna Nielsen for The National
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A new wellness event aims to convince people to give up on ­unrealistic and unhealthy ­pursuits of happiness.

The Happiness Festival – at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club on Friday, February 17 – was conceived by Fiona Barron and Saleem Ali. They are the founders of the Happiness Hub – an organisation that works with businesses to improve corporate wellness and employee engagement.

The festival will gather lifestyle experts, psychologists and therapists to tackle ­mental-health issues through talks, demonstrations and physical activities.

Barron, a clinical psychologist, says the festival is based on positive psychology for authentic happiness, using a model called ­“Perma” – Positive emotion, ­Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments.

“A lot of people see happiness as smiling and a skippy personality, but it is much more than that,” she says. “It’s not just about people laughing, but positive emotion, gratitude, focus in the ­moment, being a part of the social community and having a purpose that is greater than ourselves and accomplishing a goal.”

She adds the event offers a way to discuss mental-health issues in a non-intimidating ­environment.

“The idea is to see psychology as a strength-based tool,” Barron says. “Not ­always fix what is broken, but enable people to thrive no ­matter where they fall on the happiness scale.”

Dr Marie Thompson, a senior clinical psychologist at the Lifeworks Holistic Counselling Centre in Dubai, believes ­many people have an unhealthy attitude towards being happy.

“Happiness isn’t something that you experience 100 per cent, 100 per cent of the time,” she says.

“You can be ‘happy enough’. Aiming to be chirpy all the time isn’t healthy. We need to experience low, middle and high moods as well. We need to acknowledge that we need to experience a range of emotions.”

Thompson says social ­media has exacerbated this constant, potentially harmful need for ­happiness.

“People are constantly pressured to feel a certain way based on how they see other people’s curated lives online and that they are not as happy as they should be when they compare,” she adds.

This leads many down the road of depression, she warns. During her Positive Coping Strategies session, Thompson will guide the audience through a self-help activity that uses a mask.

“I will be asking people to ­reflect on what other people see of them and what they don’t see, and facilitate relationships and conversations where ­people can relate to both sides,” she says.

Sara Powell, co-founder of the Art Therapy International Centre in Dubai, will ­encourage participants to turn to creative outlets when facing emotional or behavioural challenges.

“Sometimes traditional ­methods of therapy seem threatening and art or expressive therapy is one way to address deep rooted problems,” says the art psychotherapist.

“Modern-day life is stressful in general and we typically manage stress on a day-today-basis in different way. Some people indulge in food or don’t eat much, or purchase too much, which are all unhealthy.

“With art or dance, you don’t have to be able to be perfect at it, it’s just about engaging in this visual language and ­managing issues in a more ­constructive manner.”

The American Center for ­Psychiatry & Neurology will present sessions on ­normal eating, positivity and reality, positive parenting and enhancing mood through music.

Dr Moayyed Othman, the centre’s regional operations manager, says psychologists should not be viewed as experts to consult only when things are grim.

“Asking for support doesn’t have to be in severe cases only,” he says.

“If you have small challenges in your relationships or life in general, starting early is better than waiting for it to mount and then seeking help.”

His team will discuss simple coping mechanisms to get life back on track.

•The Happiness Festival is on Friday from 11am at Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club. For more details and to register, visit