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8 Mix-and-Match Ingredients for a Tailored Be-Well Plan

There's no one-size-fits-all way to build well-being, a meta-analysis finds.

Key points

  • A new systematic review and meta-analysis of well-being studies identified 8 core psychological interventions that delivered positive results.
  • The researchers found, though, that no one approach was best, and encouraged clinicians and individuals to "mix and match" strategies.
  • Some interventions had better outcomes when delivered in a group; others were more effective for those with generaly strong psychological health.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

When it comes to improving psychological well-being, there are lots of options but surprisingly little evidence-based knowledge about how effectively each one—in and of itself or in combination with other interventions—optimally improves mental states of well-being.

A new systematic review and meta-analysis by a team of Australian researchers "aimed to overcome limitations of previous reviews by examining the efficacy of distinct types of psychological interventions, irrespective of their theoretical underpinning, and the impact of various moderators." Their peer-reviewed findings ( Van Agteren et al., 2021 ) were published on April 19 in Nature Human Behaviour .

What's the best way to build personal well-being?

For this worldwide systematic review and meta-analysis, a collaborative team of researchers from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and Flinders University identified 419 randomized and controlled trials involving over fifty thousand participants ( n = 53,288) from clinical and non-clinical populations for inclusion.

According to a news release , this is the largest systematic review and meta-analysis of well-being studies from around the world to address the million-dollar question: "What's the best way to build personal well-being?"

To answer, participants from the 419 studies were divided into three groups: those with generally good health, those with physical illness, and those with mental illness. Of note: The researchers acknowledge that among the 419 studies they examined, "the evidence quality was generally low to moderate." They also state that "effect sizes were moderate at best, but differed according to target population and moderator, most notably intervention intensity." While the current empirical evidence "requires further advancement," the authors say that their systematic review "provides insight into how psychological interventions can be designed to improve mental well-being."

Mix-and-match for best results.

"During stressful and uncertain periods in our lives, pro-actively working on our mental health is crucial to help mitigate the risk of mental and physical illness," first author Joep van Agteren, co-lead at the SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre , said in the news release. "Our research suggests there are numerous psychological approaches people should experiment with to determine what works for them."

Although it's possible to build and improve an individual's psychological well-being, Van Agteren stressed, "there's no one-size-fits-all solution."

"Just trying something once or twice isn't enough to have a measurable impact," co-author Matthew Iasiello added. "Regardless of what method people are trying out, they need to stick at it for weeks and months at a time for it to have a real effect. All the interventions share a common need for consistent and prolonged practice for them to be effective in improving well-being."

Which psychological interventions are most effective?

Mindfulness practices, meditation techniques, and conscious breathing were all found to effectively increase subjective well-being.

Positive psychology-based interventions, such as developing a sense of purpose, regularly performing small acts of kindness, and keeping a gratitude journal, were also shown to be effective. However, these types of psychological interventions worked best when done collectively but were not highly effective individually.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was particularly beneficial for study participants with a history of mental illness; acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) appeared to be most helpful for those with generally good psychological and physical health.

The researchers emphasize that their findings "highlight the need for a change of tactics in how society cares for people's well-being, whether they're living with a mental illness or not."

8 psychological interventions to mix-and-match

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing (e.g., longer exhalations)
  2. Mindfulness practices
  3. Meditation techniques
  4. Gratitude journaling
  5. Small acts of kindness
  6. Sense of purpose cultivation
  7. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  8. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

"[Our] study shows that in addition to seeking out professional help when distressed, there are many practical steps people can take to improve their well-being and prevent mental health problems," senior author Michael Kyrios of Flinders University said in the news release. "Implementing such interventions can be done safely for individuals on their own or in a group format, either in person or online."

Moving forward, members of this SAHMRI and Flinders collaborative plan to continually update their meta-analysis from year to year under the umbrella of a newly formed "Be Well Innovation Lab." They've also developed a beta version of their online " Be Well Plan " interactive platform that provides individuals and organizations with personalized mental health strategies and individually-tailored training sessions.


Joep van Agteren, Matthew Iasiello, Laura Lo, Jonathan Bartholomaeus, Zoe Kopsaftis, Marissa Carey & Michael Kyrios. "A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Psychological Interventions to Improve Mental Wellbeing." Nature Human Behaviour (First published: April 19, 2021) DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01093-w