Three Lessons Of Mental Well-Being That Rarely Get Talked About
This article was originally published in Forbes.
Amidst days full of pressing priorities, busy schedules, and mounting responsibilities, mental well-being is something we constantly strive for, but it can be awfully hard to define. What does mental well-being feel like, and how do you know when you achieve it?
There is no universally accepted definition of mental well-being as it can have connotations for different people, at different stages in life, and in the midst of different circumstances. But, there are a few realities of mental well-being that, when accepted, can help us all achieve the desired state we seek.
Lesson Number 1: Strive for feeling right instead of feeling good
From a young age, we are taught to seek out good-feeling emotions, to avoid stress and negativity, and to be in pursuit of happiness. But this perspective overlooks the basic truth that life is full of challenges, and that to become adaptable and resilient, we must learn to work through them, not try to avoid them.
Instead, consider what it might be like to strive to feel right instead of to feel good.
Maya Tamir, psychology professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has said that happiness “is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have.” The key to a life of fulfilment and wellness is having the emotions and the emotional experiences that one desires or wants, which can include both positive and negative feelings.
Her research goes on to show that certain emotions, like fear or anger, are necessary states to experience on the path to some larger goal. “If emotions are regulated for instrumental reasons, people should want to feel pleasant emotions when immediate benefits outweigh future benefits, but when future benefits outweigh immediate benefits, people may prefer to feel useful emotions, even if they are unpleasant."
As it turns out, the good life may not be about feeling good as much as it is about feeling right.
Lesson Number 2: Accept the negative instead of avoiding it
The first step on the way to feeling right is learning to be open to negative emotional experiences. In fact, this practice of accepting versus resisting can lead to increased well-being and overall life satisfaction. A person who is more accepting of their emotional experiences has better psychological health compared to someone who strives for only positive emotional experiences or who judges negative emotions more harshly.
A common coping mechanism we all adopt is to suppress or reject certain difficult emotions, without perhaps fully grasping that this strategy can backfire. There is plenty of evidence which shows that the more one attempts to suppress a negative experience, the more disruptive that thought or emotion becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to effectively deal with the stressor.
Telling yourself not to have certain thoughts makes it more likely that those thoughts will come back more frequently and more intensely. It’s especially true for negative thoughts. This is nicely captured in the saying: The thoughts you resist, persist.
What works more effectively, Harvard Professor Daniel Wegner says, is postponing the unwanted thoughts and setting aside a designated time for you to sit with them. Slowly exposing yourself to those negative thoughts in a controlled way will eventually cause them to subside.
Lesson Number 3: Move towards wellness, but don’t get caught on the hedonic treadmill
Many consider pleasurable states to be the ultimate goal-state, and therefore, akin to being and feeling mentally well. But: is maximizing pleasure the main driver of well-being?
Not so much.
There are two ways to think about how we derive happiness in life and work – experiences of pleasure (hedonistic drive) and experiences of purpose (eudainomic drive). While at a basic level, it may seem like experiencing joy and pleasure is the definition of true wellness, ancient philosophies and modern-day behavioral science have made it clear that well-being is about much more than that. Take, for instance, the research showing that earning more money (i.e., hedonic happiness) doesn’t contribute to greater well-being. Rather, what improves wellness is spending money on others in the form of gifts and donations.
True wellness comes from the ‘fullness’ we get from deeply satisfying experiences and personal relationships. That holds true regardless of the amount of immediate pleasure involved. Well-being is about accepting, not avoiding, difficulties and adversities, about finding meaning in the up’s and down’s of our life’s journey, and ultimately about flourishing as a human being.