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6 Pathways to Mental Health You Probably Don’t Know

New research shows happiness has many pathways.

DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Let’s get right to it. There are six core themes of healthy psychological functioning, according to leading theorists and researchers. I’ll share the six themes, along with examples from real people, and the scientific links to character strengths for each area. And you’ll get some practical tips for each theme.

1. Environmental Mastery

What it means : You manage a variety of life situations well. You create situations that match your strengths, needs, and values.

Liam’s story : “My family is always busy doing something — activities, traveling, having fun outside. We do things that are a fit best for all of us. And I always try to set things up well for my family. If we are taking a trip, going to a restaurant, or simply heading out to soccer practice, I make sure that everything is planned out, and everyone will be busy and active in what we’re about to do.”

What the research shows : Zest and hope

Liam’s strengths advice : "Tap into your hope strength by creating a vision for what you (or your family) want to do for a weekend or a particular activity. Make sure everyone is involved. Then, use your energy and positive enthusiasm to make the most of the experience."

2. Purpose in Life

What it means : You feel there is a sense of direction in your life. You find a sense of meaning in your past and current experiences.

Jade’s story : “My work is my purpose. I work for an organization that is on the front line of fighting disease in non-industrialized countries. I travel around the world, helping people to overcome treatable diseases, like malaria, and diseases that come from unclean water. I see the difference that my team and I are making every day. It’s a great feeling.”

What the research shows : Perseverance and self-regulation

Jade’s strengths advice : “Think of it this way: How can you make the world a better place? Maybe it’s your work, maybe it’s through your family. Maybe it’s a volunteer job you could get. Whatever it is, stick with it. Stay focused on that purpose, no matter what obstacles or challenges come your way. It takes discipline to stick with it, but hey, it’s your purpose, so it should be something that energizes you and does not feel like a burden.”

3. Personal Growth

What it means : You view yourself as a person who is growing and continuously developing. You take self-knowledge and turn it into self-improvement.

Cody’s story : “As a father, this is really important to me. My own father left me when I was young, so I never really met him. I don’t want to make the same mistake with my little girl. I want to keep improving myself — bettering myself in my work and in my health. I figure I just have one life to live, so I should try to reach my best. Then, I’ll be that much stronger for my daughter.”

What the research shows : Curiosity and love of learning

Cody’s strengths advice : “Use your curiosity and learning to go after new topics you are interested in. Never allow dullness or boredom to take over. There’s always something to explore and learn about. For me, I’m curious about all the positive ways that people parent. I’m learning so much about ways I can improve.”

4. Positive Relationships

What it means : You care about the well-being of others. You are empathic and have warm and trusting connections with others.

Trent’s story : “My family and friends are everything to me. Most of my time is spent with my closest friends or my immediate family. I've had a lot of ups and downs in my life. I really value the care and support I receive from them when I’m struggling. And I try to go out of my way to be there for them too, at good times and bad.”

What the research shows : Love and social intelligence

Trent’s strengths advice : “I don’t think it matters how many good relationships you have. As long as you have one or two. Use your strengths to listen really well to those people. Try to hear their needs and hopes. Then, see if you can help them.”

5. Autonomy

What it means : You are able to make choices with confidence. You are independent, able to resist social pressures.

Ava’s story : “I would describe myself as a strong woman. I try not to be too overbearing, but I am someone who will share my opinions and feelings in almost any situation. It never seems to bother me to speak up or to go against the crowd. I’m responsible for my choices, and I set high standards for the choices I make.”

What the research shows : Bravery

Ava’s strengths advice : “Speak your perspective. Even if it’s uncomfortable. The world needs your feelings and opinions now more than ever. You can be independent and brave, while also being loving and kind at the same time. Try to find your way there.”

6. Self-acceptance

What it means : You see the positives and negatives in your life and accept them as part of you and your life experience. You have a positive attitude about yourself.

Jaime’s story : “When I was growing up, I didn’t like myself very much. I allowed people to push me around, and I drank a lot. I tried to cover up my insecurities. As an adult, I’ve learned that I, like everyone else, make mistakes and have weaknesses and flaws. That’s OK. It’s normal. I can accept that. What’s more exciting is that I also have many talents and gifts to share with the world. I’m just beginning to understand all of the strengths I have. I can certainly accept those too.”

What the research shows : Hope and zest

Jaime’s strengths advice : "Be enthusiastic about your character strengths. Rather than finding exceptions where your strengths weren’t perfect, look for ways in which they have served you well. Name your weaknesses and struggles. Rather than feeling bad about them, embrace them, and use them as a motivator to become stronger.”

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Final Comment

This article was inspired by the many researchers across the globe involved in the study of character strengths and happiness . A dizzying array of connections between character strengths and every area of psychological well-being and subjective well-being have been found.

For this post, the work of Dr. Claudia Harzer from Germany was the main inspiration. Gratitude also goes to psychological well-being researcher Dr. Carol Ryff for her innovative theoretical work and being the first to collate the six areas of psychological well-being discussed above.