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Five Proven Keys to Improve Your Well-Being

Improve your mental outlook through five small, but important steps.

Key points

  • Being close to a minimum of three people may be enough to protect a person from psychological disorders.
  • Single exercise sessions of just 10 minutes or less can have an impact on mental health.
  • Going beyond one's personal desire or self-interest is one of the best ways to enhance feelings of well-being. 

The key to happiness may be elusive, but taking advantage of a few simple strategies can do a great deal to improve your everyday feelings of well-being. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a British think tank, published a thoughtful, research-based paper outlining "Five ways to well-being." The report is based on the principles of positive psychology, that happiness and feelings of well-being are as important an area of scientific investigation as are the clinically-focused areas of much of traditional psychology.

What I particularly found useful about this paper was the fact that it doesn’t just emphasize the fleeting feelings of happiness emphasized within some of the positive psychology writings. Instead, true well-being incorporates the broader notion of personal fulfillment in which people may be willing to experience temporary deprivation or frustration to help them achieve longer-lasting feelings of inner satisfaction. Consistent with the World Health Organization’s vision of active aging, these five keys to well-being emphasize maximizing the individual’s potential, or what they call “mental capital.”

The full report contains a more in-depth analysis of each of these five keys. What I hope to do here is summarize them in enough detail so that you can have a sense of where to start addressing changes that you would like to make now in your own life.

There are many definitions of well-being, but the NEF’s approach seems particularly useful in that it’s consistent with many current understandings in the field. First, being high in well-being means that you feel good about yourself and your life, are curious about what’s going on around you and enjoy what you do. Second, people high in well-being function well in the world by having positive relationships and a sense of control in their lives. From the point of view of “fulfillment” rather than “happiness,” high well-being also incorporates having a sense of purpose in life.

Survey data on life satisfaction in the U.S. typically report that most people are reasonably satisfied with their lives, but the NEF cites British data suggesting that only 14% of the population are “flourishing” in that they are actually high on well-being.

Each of the five keys to well-being had to meet the criteria of being based on sufficient evidence to warrant recommendation. In addition, each one had to be applicable to individuals in their own lives now, rather than to social changes that may affect future generations. With this in mind, let’s take a look at them along with specific suggestions that you can adapt to your own situation:

1. Connect with the people around you. The British analysis of well-being agrees with U.S. data showing the importance of social support and relationships to an individual’s mental health and happiness. Having a minimum of three people with whom you’re close may be enough to protect you from a psychological disorder. Although it’s true that people who are in better psychological health may find it easier to make social connections, the NEF analysis suggests that having people around you who matter is even more important than simply having sheer numbers of close connections. The best social relationships in terms of well-being are ones in which other people are supportive and encouraging, and that you find to be important to your own sense of meaning in life.

Having life goals associated with commitment to social relationships seems particularly helpful as well. If your primary goals in life are to succeed at work, you’ll be fated to a life with lower levels of well-being than people who value relationships.

2. Be active. We know that there are many benefits to an active lifestyle, not the least of which includes fewer chronic health problems. In terms of mental health, additionally, high levels of physical activity have a wide range of positive effects. Researchers believe that physical activity can protect against some of the ills that can befall people in later life including cognitive decline but it can also help stave off feelings of depression and anxiety in individuals of any age.

When it comes to physical activity’s effects on health, in general, the longer and more intense, the better. However, as the NEF report points out, even single exercise sessions of 10 minutes or less can have an impact on mental health.

3. Be curious. Being engaged with your surroundings is, as we saw earlier, one component of well-being. Therefore, as a key to well-being, curiosity seems like a natural factor to include. The best type of curiosity to promote well-being goes beyond being interested and engaged in your environment. Mindfulness, in which you deliberately pay attention to what you’re sensing, feeling, and thinking, pays off in a heightened sense of self-determination over your behavior. The more in control you feel about what you do, the better you’ll feel about yourself and your experiences. Even when you can’t completely control the forces that impact your life, thinking about your reactions and gaining greater self-understanding can help offset their negative impact.

The best thing about mindfulness as a key to well-being is that it takes no special skills. Mindfulness doesn’t even take up any time. All it takes to be mindful is the willingness to reflect on your inner state and experiences.

4. Keep learning. We’ve already seen that your well-being can be enhanced by curiosity, mindfulness, and physical activity. Mental stimulation through continued education, formal or otherwise, adds several important components to the mix. First, by exposing yourself to new educational experiences, you might also become more socially active. Taking adult education courses, whether for work or leisure purposes, puts you in situations with others who you would not otherwise have met but who have similar interests. Learning new skills can also boost your sense of self-efficacy. If you’ve always felt that you lacked musical or artistic ability, but now find that you can sing or paint, you’ll feel that much better about yourself in general.

Through adult learning, people also start to engage in goal-setting which, in turn, can promote feelings of well-being. When you choose your own goals that you feel are consistent with your values, you’ll be more likely to feel engaged in your life even outside the sphere of the particular skill you’re learning.

5. Give. Going beyond your own personal desires or self-interests is one of the best ways to enhance your feelings of well-being. It does feel good to obtain reinforcement in the form of personal rewards, but your overall well-being is more enhanced when you do something for someone else. NEF cites research showing that being a volunteer can help to reduce mortality among older adults. Other evidence shows that committing an act of kindness even just once per week can help people actually improve their levels of well-being.

Luckily, helping others is about one of the easiest behaviors to enact. You don’t have to make a huge sacrifice to reap the benefits of a little altruism. Letting someone who seems frail or tired take your seat on a crowded bus or train is a pretty simple way to practice that small amount of kindness.

There are many keys to well-being that are outside of your control, but these five are well within your range of abilities, no matter what your situation is in life. The great news is also that you can ease your way into each of them through small steps. Once you do, those small steps will build on each other and your sense of fulfillment will continue to grow.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

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