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To Promote Mental Wellness, Try Fit, Fitness, and Fairness

How to balance personal and social transformation.

Key points

  • Physical and psychological fitness are necessary but may be insufficient to foster well-being.
  • Pursuing the right fit between personal needs and contextual factors can enhance well-being.
  • Fairness matters greatly in relationships, at work, and in the community.

The Value of Fitness

There is much talk about fitness nowadays—physical fitness, mental fitness, occupational fitness—and for good reason. There is a lot we can do individually to improve our physical and emotional health. We can improve our physical well-being through proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise. We can elevate our happiness through savoring, flow, gratitude, forgiveness, and mindful self-compassion. We can excel at work by acquiring more technical and interpersonal skills. But is this enough? I would argue that fitness is a necessary, but insufficient condition for the promotion of well-being.

In addition to activities that we can initiate and sustain through personal motivation, there are drivers of well-being having to do with the context of our lives. Let me address two: the right fit between person and environment, and the degree of fairness in relationships, at work, and in society at large.

The Right Fit

Fit is about the right match between your needs and the environment. The context of your life—family, work, community—has to be responsive to your needs; and you, in turn, need to adjust to the context. If you are neat, you may want to live and work with folks who pick up after themselves. If you want to lower your stress in Miami, you may want to avoid driving on the US 1, which we, the locals, call the Useless One.

Is there a good fit between your needs and your social environment? Are you surrounded by supportive or judgmental people? Are there lots of barriers for you to achieve your goals? Have you thought of changing the environment to improve your life? I made some major changes in my life to achieve a better fit between my needs and living conditions. To begin with, I moved countries four times, which sounds a bit excessive, but it’s true. I grew up in Argentina under a dictatorship that was both brutal and anti-Semitic. Terrible fit, especially if you opposed the military dictatorship and were Jewish, like me: two for two. I moved to Israel when I was a teenager. After nine years there, my wife Ora and I decided to pursue advanced degrees in Canada, which we thought would present better opportunities. After 15 wonderful years in Canada, the winter got to us. Ora, who uses a wheelchair, was restricted by the constant presence of snow and slush. There were many wonderful things about Canada, but the weather was definitely not one of them. In pursuit of nicer weather, we moved to Australia. We had three amazing years in Melbourne, but in search of a better occupational fit, we moved to Nashville to take up jobs at Vanderbilt University.

Life is a dance between what we want and possess and what the context can offer. Sometimes we have to change the environment to make it more in line with our needs; we can make it more nurturing and accepting. Families and workplaces that provide caring and respect foster mattering and well-being. Settings that ignore you, instead, can create alienation. In short, what needs to change sometimes is not you, but the environment.

The Value of Fairness

The right fit between person and environment requires not just fitness, but also fairness. Fairness is the practice of justice. There are several types of fairness. Distributive relates to getting what you deserve, like respect, recognition, opportunities, access to high-quality health care, proper pay, or free education for your children. Procedural pertains to having voice and choice in decisions affecting your life, from what movie you are going to watch with your partner to policies impacting your community to voting rights. Corrective, in turn, has to do with repairing damage done to you or your community and restoring fair relationships among conflicting parties.

If injustice of any kind—distributive, procedural, corrective—prevails, improving our fitness may not be enough. If you find yourself in an abusive situation, where your bodily or psychological integrity is imperiled, improving your communication skills may not stop the abuse. You may be the greatest communicator on Earth, but this may not prevent a physically abusive partner from acting violently.

Fairness, or lack thereof, can take place in relationships, families, workplaces, or the community. Women are still getting paid less than men for similar work. People with disabilities still encounter physical and social barriers. Children are abused by ill-prepared parents. Minorities are discriminated against due to racism, bias, and stigma. Poor children go hungry. Workers are exploited by unscrupulous corporations. People with more power treat others dismissively. These are injustices afflicting many groups.

Are you treated with respect? Do people in your circles make you feel valued? Do you have voice and choice in decisions affecting your life? Are you getting what you deserve, in relationships, at work, and in the community?

We should learn to detect signs of unfair treatment. For example, bullying does not have to be overt to be harmful. Insidious ways can be just as damaging. Harassment can take many forms: sexual, psychological, social. Exclusion and marginalization are manifestations of unfairness—we are treated as invisible or worse. Once we learn how to recognize these transgressions, we can improve our fitness to enhance fairness. Being assertive is part of interpersonal and psychological fitness. To achieve an optimal fit between person and environment we need fitness and fairness.

In short, there are three pathways to well-being. The first one, fitness, entails the acquisition of skills and healthy habits. The second, fit, requires changes in ourselves and the context. The third, fairness, requires changes in our environment and social relations. This is a reminder that well-being depends on both internal psychological changes and social transformations. The more we create conditions of fairness, the easier it will be for people to find the right fit between their needs and their surroundings. Once we all enjoy the same opportunities in life, then we can flourish through practice and dedication. But in the absence of fairness, no amount of fitness will result in optimal wellness.

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