What if I were to propose that well-being may do more to enhance your mental health than the pursuit of happiness?
Of course, we all desire to be happy. Yet if you ask ten people what their definition of happiness is, you may get ten different answers. As it turns out, happiness alone may not be the greatest contributor to mental health. Well-being, contentment, fulfillment, and joy may be the more desired outcomes regarding mental health and happiness.
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at well-being. Well-being has many aspects to it. It is not just a sense of deep happiness—it’s much more than that. Well-being means you feel good about yourself, your life, and others. Well-being influences many life domains: emotional, cognitive, psychological, physical, relational, and the spiritual.
Dr. Martin Seligman’s research has contributed to a greater knowledge of well-being. In this article, we will look at a brief overview of his theory on well-being, as well as other strategies that can improve mental health.
Well-being influences many life domains: emotional, cognitive, psychological, physical, relational, and the spiritual.
Key Elements of Well-Being
According to Dr. Seligman’s theory, well-being has five key elements:
- Positive emotion
- Positive relationships
Emotion is explained as the “pleasant life.” The pleasant life can be measured subjectively and includes happiness, life satisfaction, and other positive emotions such as pleasure, comfort, ecstasy, warmth, and joy.
What we know from research in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology is that we can actually change the neurochemistry in our brains by adapting the way we think about things. If we focus on thinking about things that are more positive, we can actually begin to change our mood and emotional state. If we do this for an extended period of time, we can alter neural pathways and synaptic connections in our brains. This, in turn, can lead to greater mental health.
Engagement, like positive emotion, is measured subjectively. Engagement involves being actively engaged in what you are doing. Another way to look at engagement is being intentional about being involved and present in life. Ask the following questions and then reflect on your level of engagement:
- Are you absorbed in the task you are involved with?
- Are you present, totally engaged with others or what you are doing?
- Are you practicing being mindful?
Engagement also encompasses learning new things, being interested in life, and the pursuit of being curious or alive to life.
3. Meaning and purpose
Meaning and purpose can be understood as belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than yourself. Many would agree that what brings meaning to life is connections to other people and relationships; these can often contribute to meaning and purpose in life. Connection with others generally contributes to a sense that life is valuable and worthwhile.
Pursuing endeavors that involve a deep sense of calling or conviction can bring meaning and purpose. For some in the United States, this may mean faith in God. For others, it may mean some other pursuit or cause that is worthwhile.
Meaning and purpose can involve discovering and exploring your strengths, gifts, and talents. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Where are my strengths, gifts, talents directing me?
- Do I have strong convictions about any cause that compels me to action?
- Do I feel a sense of calling to pursue something?
- What life experience do I have that creates opportunities for a greater purpose?
- Is there a group of people, organization, or community that moves me to get involved?
Meaning and purpose can involve discovering and exploring your strengths, gifts, and talents.
4. Accomplishment and achievement
Accomplishment or achievement is often pursued for its own sake. Something deep and rich is found when one pursues something they feel good about and experience a sense of accomplishment or achievement.
Having life goals is important. They add to a greater sense of well-being. They move us forward and are future-directed. Having a mindset of being a lifelong learner can be beneficial. Whether that means pursuing more education, learning new skills, a new language, or something else, these can lead to accomplishment. Ask yourself if there is anything you want to accomplish or achieve, then set out to do it.
5. Positive relationships
Positive relationships in life are one of the hallmarks of well-being. When life is shared with others, a sense of contentment can be found. Most of us are meant to live life out with other people. A marked difference exists, however, in positive versus negative relationships. Pursuing relationships that are life-giving as opposed to those that are not can enhance well-being and lead to greater mental health. Good questions to ask about positive relationships include:
- Do you feel loved?
- Do you feel appreciated?
- Do you feel known?
- Do you feel cared for?
- Do you feel valued?
Take inventory of your relationships. Are there more positive ones or negative? Are there any relationships you want to change or spend less time in? Toxic or negative relationships can take a toll on our well-being. Notice and ask, “Is this relationship life-giving, or do I feel negatively impacted by spending time in the relationship?” It’s okay to limit those relationships that may be more harmful than good for you. Indeed, this may add to a better sense of well-being.
In addition to Dr. Seligman’s research, other factors that can enhance well-being include:
6. Physical health
Exercise and healthy life style habits can contribute to greater well-being. Most people know that regular exercise helps physical and emotional well-being. Cardiovascular exercise releases chemicals in our bodies that can affect our mood. Consult with your physician, then set up an exercise regimen. Just getting outdoors and walking can improve your mood and mental health.
Eating healthy foods can also affect your mood and well-being. Keep an account of what and when you are eating. Are you eating for nourishment and enjoyment or are you eating to comfort yourself (such as emotional or comfort eating)?
Leisure and fun can be restorative to the soul and great for well-being. Are you listening to your body and resting when you need to? Take time to relax and enjoy life, as both are often restorative to mental health. Where leisure is restorative to the soul, fun is refreshment to the spirit. Laughter is also good medicine. Make sure you are taking time out to have some good old fashion fun.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of ideas for well-being, these are some of the key elements for well-being that contribute to greater mental health. In an age where the pursuit of happiness seems to be at the top of everyone’s list, taking time to reflect on the meaning of well-being for you may just be a better means of improving your happiness and mental health.
If you find yourself struggling to find a sense of well-being, try reaching out to a qualified and compassionate therapist. Talking with a therapist could help you discover new ways to cultivate well-being in your life and clear away roadblocks that may be stopping you from getting there.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Atria.
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