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Changing the way we think about happiness might change the way we achieve it, researchers say.
Mental well-being can be part of your daily practice, like eating your fruits and vegetables.
Working on connecting to others, having a greater purpose in our day to day, and setting goals can help increase happiness.
Taking care of your mental health through daily actions—just like you would take care of your body by eating fruits and vegetables—may be the path forward through challenging times. A new framework suggests that mental well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life. Essentially, we can train our brains to be happy.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison hope the new framework can help define well-being, and the parts of it that they’ve found can be improved with training. The December paper was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Difference Between Mental Strength and Mental Health
The paper acknowledges a lack of industry standards for well-being, which in turn creates a lack of common language between therapists. The researchers argue that using consistent language can help healthcare professionals with both patient outreach and research.
Researchers claim well-being can be achieved through training and self-regulatory processes. Applying the measures in daily life can greatly help both the instance of happiness, but also the conversations about how to achieve it.
The four aspects of mental well-being the researchers focus on in their framework include:
“It describes awareness, connection, insight, and purpose in terms of skills that we can practice in some form every day,” Christine D. Wilson-Mendenhall, PhD, one of the study’s authors and associate scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Verywell. “When we think about mental health, we often think about therapy. This framework broadens the conversation, to include what is more like the ‘eat your fruits and vegetables’ of mental health. We can develop mental habits that help us feel well, and that help us to be more resilient when life is harder when we inevitably experience stress and loss.
What This Means For You
There are ways to practice improving your mental well-being through techniques like meditation and therapy. Healthy Minds Innovations offers a Healthy Minds Program App, available for free download, that can help you implement these four aspects of mental well-being in your daily life.
Four Aspects of Mental Well-Being
The researchers lay out four aspects of mental well-being that they’ve found can be trained and improved upon in your daily life.
Awareness, the researchers say, means paying attention to our environment and our relationship to it. This can include how we interact with others, how we feel during the day, and what we think in stressful situations.
The state of mind is called meta-awareness, which is an awareness of the processes of conscious experience. Ideally, in a state of meta-awareness, a person can identify an emotion, as it’s felt, before reacting impulsively.
The theory also works in reverse, where individuals can become aware when they are on “autopilot” or simply going through the motions in daily life. Diet, Exercise, and Sleep Are Pillars of Mental Health, Study Finds
The new framework references a study that found approximately 47% of people spend their life in a state of distraction, which lowered their feelings of well-being. Previous studies have found distraction can cloud executive function, an important management system of the brain. Distraction is also linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.
The researchers cite a study where mindfulness training and focused attention meditation improved working memory and GRE scores in distraction-prone students; however, they concede that training in this area is new and has provided mixed results.
Connection is a feeling of harmony that promotes healthy interactions with other people. This feeling of connection strengthens when we have friendly exchanges with people outside of our immediate social bubble. You might feel this when you meet someone from a different country or if you find common ground with someone that holds a different belief system. That feeling of connection occurs because you’ve found friendship in places where we did not expect to find it.
The study notes that connecting with others is a better prediction of health than even some biological or economic factors. The researchers point to studies that show social relationships can act as a buffer against depression and anxiety.
The opposite is also true. Lacking healthy connections with others can be more harmful than drinking in excess or smoking. Loneliness can also be a risk factor for low feelings of well-being.
Kindness meditation can help with feeling connected, the study authors claim, citing research showing that the practice can reduce implicit bias and discrimination.5
Insight, as the paper defines it, is a reflective practice. The method encourages people to explore how anxious thoughts are a result of their own negative experiences. Using strategies to investigate the stories we tell about ourselves can help us change our outlook for the future.
Changing the way we see ourselves can help lower depression and anxiety, as well as help our performance at work or at school. Psychotherapy can help stop these self-destructive thoughts, the researchers say.
Having a purpose is associated with positive biological and physical health outcomes. Purpose in life is often associated with resilience, meaning that those who are ‘purpose-driven’ are more likely to bounce back from setbacks, such as a job loss or divorce.
Being purpose-driven means that you are able to work toward personal and professional goals with the knowledge that you are working in pursuit of something bigger than yourself. A sense of purpose is linked to fewer heart attacks, stroke, and improved financial wellbeing.
The study authors caution, however, that being too inwardly-focused can lead to the opposite effect: materialistic behavior. Your purpose is to recognize your own path in society on a higher level, without judging individuals who are on their own, different journey.
Improving Your Well-Being
Implementing this framework as a way to think about your mental well-being, and train your mind might be helpful in improving your overall mental health.
“On our website, you can find example practices for the four pillars of well-being: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose,” Wilson says. “Healthy Minds Innovations, a nonprofit affiliated with our academic center, also offers a number of well-being tools. Some practices are those that you set aside time to do.”
These tools include guided audio practices on issues like:
- Awareness of your surroundings
- Expressing gratitude
- Finding your purpose and core values
- Interrogating your inner emotions
Ways to practice awareness, insight, connection, and purpose include:
- Close your eyes and take 10 intentional breaths
- Make a habit of noticing the positive in other people
- If you find yourself in a bad mood, question your assumptions and notice them
- In a moment of hardship, identify what is meaningful to you