Everyone wants to be happy. What most people mean when they say they want happiness is that they want to feel a positive sense of mental well-being. Mental wellness however, requires some effort, in the same way physical health does. If you want good physical health, you can’t sit on the couch drinking beer and eating donuts and fried chicken; you have to do things that result in better health, such as eating right, drinking enough water, exercising, taking vitamins, and getting enough rest. If you want to experience positive mental well-being, there are things you have to do on a regular basis that result in mental wellness.
Following are five essential mental wellness activities that, if done together regularly, will result in a sense of well-being that can improve the quality of your life.
The importance of learning to be consciously present and aware, as opposed to on autopilot, cannot be overstated. Mindfulness allows you to have conscious awareness of what you are doing, so you can make choices to override automatic thinking and make positive changes in thoughts and behavior. When you are mindful, you are able to observe events in a non-judgmental way, which allows you to detach from negative emotions, as opposed to being controlled by them. As a result, the way you respond to events in your life starts to change. Your emotions are better regulated, and you stop getting so upset, angry, or fearful over things you can’t control. You are also not flooding your brain with fear and worry about the future or resentments from the past, which has the profoundly positive effect of resetting your emotional state to calm and peaceful.
In order to experience the life-altering benefits of mindfulness, it is best to practice on a daily basis. Once a week won’t get you there, but 10 minutes a day is enough to start to feel the benefit in a matter of a few days, although you probably won’t start to notice how it is changing your behavior until you’ve been practicing daily for a couple of weeks. You should subtly start to notice you feel calmer and less stressed; things that used to upset you may not bother you so much anymore. You will feel greater clarity in your thinking and ability to focus. To add a mindfulness practice into your routine, it is best to set aside a regular time to do it every day. First thing in the morning is a great way to start your day off on a positive note; however, for some, mid-day is a time that offers a needed break, and right before bed can have a calming effect. There are innumerable books, courses, and online resources to teach you how to practice, but if you are a beginner, I suggest starting off with a guided phone app; Mindspace is one that I recommend regularly to my patients.
2. Input the Positive.
What you take in from your environment matters a great deal to your emotional well-being, because it stays active in your subconscious mental space for a period of time, even after the event is long over. For example, if you’ve ever listened to a song on the radio and then heard it in your head a week later, or watched a scary movie and had a nightmare the next night, that’s because those events are still active in your mental space and influencing you emotionally. If you would like to experience positive emotional well-being, you need to take in as many positive things from your surroundings as possible, and minimize the number of negative things. Most people don’t pay attention to what they are taking in. If you watch a lot of negative news stories, chronically listen to songs about heartbreak and sadness, frequently watch crime dramas and horror movies, regularly play violent video games, or spend a lot of time listening to other people complain about their lives, that is a steady junk diet of emotional negativity that is bound to drag you down. Oftentimes, you don’t even notice these things are making you feel down, because they have become a part of your normal emotional set-point.
To really experience the benefit of inputting the positive, I suggest a two-week environmental detox: Go through your daily routine and remove anything that, when you think of it, feels like it may generate a negative emotion. Turn off the news, disconnect from anyone who drags you into negative conversations, and stop watching or listening to anything sad, violent, or scary. Instead, make a very conscious effort to only give your attention to things that feel positive and uplifting. Listen to music and read books that inspire you, watch videos that make you laugh, spend time with pets and people that are happy, take more walks in nature, keep a gratitude journal, find an inspirational quote and use it as a screen saver. Once you’ve done this for two straight weeks, you should start to feel a noticeable emotional shift. You may find that your desire to engage in the activities that you gave up goes way down, and if you do start to re-engage in those activities, you might find them uncomfortable or even upsetting, as they are no longer a match to the emotional wavelength you are now on. Once you are done with your detox, to maintain your well-being, keep in mind that the formula is simple: Attention to negative things equals negative emotions; Attention to positive things equals positive emotions.
One of the most foundational elements of emotional well-being is self-compassion. Without it, you cannot find true happiness. It is impossible to hate yourself and have a good life. Yet, surprisingly, many people try doing just that: They self-criticize and self-flagellate as a way to motivate themselves to be better; they demand perfection and set unrealistic standards for themselves, which they would never apply to anyone else, believing this is the path to becoming who they want to be. But negative self-talk really damages your self-esteem and can lead to serious conditions like anxiety and depression.
Self-compassion is about learning to be kind to yourself and to be self-forgiving of the flaws we all have and the mistakes we all make as human beings. It is the ultimate form of self-love and a prerequisite to real self-confidence. Many people are so controlled by their inner critic that they find the idea of self-compassion to be something they don’t deserve. I highly recommend the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff as a way to train yourself into a more self-loving mindset. A chapter a week will alter your view on yourself in a few short months. If the idea of being kind to yourself seems impossible, seeking out the help of a trained mental health professional may be in order. (To learn how to silence your inner critic, click here. For a simple 30-day exercise that trains your attention to focus on your positive qualities, click here.)
4. Loving Others.
When we show love and compassion to other people, it releases chemicals in the pre-frontal cortex and reward center of the brain that professionals refer to as the "Helper’s High." People who help others report many positive mental and physical health benefits, including lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, and relief from depression and physical pain. Research also shows that those who engage in altruistic behavior not only have a higher quality of life, but they also live longer.1 Engaging in some type of regular volunteer activity on at least a monthly basis, or just spending more time doing loving, kind things for the people in your life, helps get you out of your own head, creates well-being for others, and makes you feel good about yourself.
5. Physical Wellness.
The body cannot be separated from the mind. As a result, it is difficult to experience mental well-being if you do not take care of yourself physically. While for a period of time professionals characterized all mental illness as brain disorders, there is growing research demonstrating that the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain involved in feelings of well-being, such as serotonin, are directly affected by other important areas of your body such as the gut microbiome (digestive track), and so nutrition is the newest frontier of treatment for psychiatric disorders. Recent research suggests that adopting The Mediterranean Diet while reducing sugar, fried food, and alcohol can significantly improve depression.2
As important as diet is, exercise is equally critical for positive emotional well-being. It has long been known that exercise releases endorphins into the body, which results in feelings of pleasure. Recent research shows that 10 minutes or more of cardiovascular exercise a day is enough to significantly improve mood functioning3 and sleep quality, which has been shown to help people improve their ability to regulate emotions and experience greater well-being.4,5
The reason most people find happiness to be elusive is that they don’t do the things that they need to in order to experience mental wellness. I often work with people who week after week explain to me why they can’t do these things: They are too depressed, too anxious, too busy, too stressed out, or have too many other people to take care of. What they fail to realize is that the reason they are where they are is because they are not doing the things that would bring them wellness, and are instead arguing for their limitations. If you are going to put energy into arguing for something, argue for your right to live a positive, mentally healthy life. Focus all of your energy and attention on the reasons why you can take care of yourself. Well-being doesn’t happen because you wish for it; it happens because you do the things that bring it into your life.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
1. Post, Stephen G. "Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good." International journal of behavioral medicine 12.2 (2005): 66-77.
2. Jacka, Felice N. "Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to next?." EBioMedicine (2017).
3. Toups, Marisa, et al. "Exercise is an effective treatment for positive valence symptoms in major depression." Journal of Affective Disorders 209 (2017): 188-194.
4. Jaffery, Annese, Meghan K. Edwards, and Paul D. Loprinzi. "Randomized Control Intervention Evaluating the Effects of Acute Exercise on Depression and Mood Profile: Solomon Experimental Design." Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Vol. 92. No. 3. Elsevier, 2017.
5. O’Leary, Kimberly, Lauren M. Bylsma, and Jonathan Rottenberg. "Why might poor sleep quality lead to depression? A role for emotion regulation." Cognition and Emotion (2016): 1-9.