In order to have a good quality of life, building strong mental health is of utmost importance. In the previous article, I spoke about Mental Health awareness, so make sure to check it out before reading on!
There was a very good example Charles Kadushin presented that shows how society is built. In the core is you, as a person. Around you are interpersonal connections (family, friends, people close to us). Then there are organisational connections (culture of the group home, professors, bosses etc.).
The fourth circle is the community (people living in the same community, taking part in the surrounding life). And the last circle is socio-political connections (the country, continent, the world).
My point is, everything is connected and it starts with us. If we want to live in a healthy environment, we need to start with ourselves. For this reason, let’s see how to build strong mental health.
Being in relationships where we are valued for who we are, and where we intrinsically value others, is a very important factor that contributes to a sense of well-being.
Nevertheless, some groups of relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging (one of the pillars mentioned in the next section): we are valued for what we believe in, for who we hate, not for who we are.
To be able to belong, we need understanding and empathy for people. We need to cultivate our relationships. For many people, their bonds to family and friends are the most essential source of meaning.
Furthermore, according to a recent article in Social Psychological and Personality Science, belonging to social groups increases psychological strength to endure and overcome physical challenges: getting involved in our community makes us more mentally resilient, helps us build strong mental health.
The research shows, that forming part of social groups gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. Both of which are important and I will dive more into it in the next sections.
Emily Esfahani, a journalist and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that chasing happiness is making people unhappy.
Objectively, life is getting better by almost every conceivable standard, however, the data in Esfahani’s research shows that more and more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone, empty. All of which affects our mental health and physical health.
However, Esfahani came to the conclusion that it is not a lack of happiness, but a lack of meaning in their lives that is making people depressed.
The experience of being happy is something we feel in the moment because something happened, scientists explain, but having meaning is something deeper. Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond ourselves, and from developing our skills.
Studies show that people who have found meaning in life are more resilient, they do better at school and at work, and they even live longer. Accordingly, seeking meaning is one of the steps towards strong mental health because it also affects our self-esteem.
How can we live more meaningfully? According to Emily Esfahani, we can create meaning in our lives by building upon four pillars; Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence and Storytelling.
I will explore these for pillars in more detail throughout this article and present additional research supporting these pillars as foundations for living a meaningful life.
Changing your perspective on life
“How do you see the world? As a competitive, cruel place? Then you will act in a competitive and cruel way. Do you see life as beautiful and full of opportunities? Then you will act friendly, helping other people, and seeing opportunities everywhere.”
His words went beyond seeing the word, what he was trying to explain is that all changes start within us. Do we want people to be nice to us? Perhaps we should start by being nice to them, and so forth.
We do not realise that we think of success or doing what we love as an ‘end’: like a destination that we must reach, instead of seeing it as an approach to the journey and not the journey itself.
We are ‘successful’ when we are walking our path, learning and growing. And we are doing what we love when we see every moment as an opportunity.
Therefore, we each need to ask ourselves, “ how do I see life?”
Let’s start here, one step at a time. By just becoming conscious of how we see the world and how we act in this world, is the first big step. Which brings us to the fourth pillar: storytelling.
Storytelling: the story we tell ourselves about ourselves
Creating a narrative from the events of our lives brings clarity. It helps us understand how we become who we are. However, we don’t always realise we are the authors of these stories and can change the way we are telling them.
Our life isn’t just a list of events. We can edit, interpret, and retell our story, even as we are constrained by the facts.
If we can see the positive outcome of a situation, we can change the way we see our story. Psychologist Dan McAdams calls this a “redemptive story”; when bad is redeemed by the good.
What makes people change their stories? We can start by reflecting on our lives thoughtfully: how our defining experiences have shaped us, what we lost, what we gained.
We will not change our story overnight, it can take years and it can be a difficult change.
After all, we have all suffered, and we have all struggled, but embracing those painful memories can lead to new insights and wisdom, to finding that good that sustains us.
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience, presents the positive benefits of physical activity (simply moving our body is enough) on our brain. It increases our well-being: including our mood and focus. It can actually protect our brain from different conditions such as depression, anxiety, and decreases the chances of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Also, being active outside of your daily work and school commitments fills you with energy and a feeling of fulfilment. It can be from joining a social group to creative lessons or classes, to simply cooking or writing.
Whatever active means for each person, it is supposed to bring you relaxation, quiet your mind and help you breathe when under stress.
Find something that will help you stay in the moment, or in other words transcendence (the 3rd pillar): the transcendent state is when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to yourself and/or your surroundings.
It is an activity that makes you feel less self-centred. And it is proven that experiencing the feeling of being less self-centred makes us behave more generously when given the chance to help someone else.
This purposeful mindset is becoming more prevalent in younger generations, but with it comes to its own pressure.
It made me wonder, is my purpose something higher that was made for me or is it something that I can choose? Which connects us with the speech of Gert-Jan: how we choose to see life, is how we will act on it.
It gives great responsibility, but at the same time, it can be liberating because we can detach ourselves from the limitations we have placed in our minds (views on how things should be, how they should work, or how we should feel and act).
Finding purpose is not the same thing as finding a job that makes us happy. The purpose is more about what we give than about what we want, using our strengths to serve others.
In order to be able to use our strength, we need to take time to understand and appreciate what skills and gifts we have.
Many of us find our purpose through work, that’s how we contribute and how we feel needed. But it also means that issues like disengagement at work, unemployment, lack of opportunities at work, aren’t just economic problems, they are existential ones for us as well.
Without something worthwhile to do, people flounder. Purpose gives you something to live for. It is what gives you the drive to move forward.
Positive Self Talk: Self Value
Social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood researched how people think and how we might be able to improve our thought process. She was wondering why failure seems to stick much longer than successful events. Why do our minds get stuck in the negative?
There is a typical example of the glass half-empty/half-full mentality. When we see a situation as “glass half-full” (or as she describes it, as “game frame”) we see it in a positive way; it makes us and others more inclined to like it. When we see a situation as “glass half-empty” (in other words, as “loss frame”), we see it in a negative and pessimistic way.
But what happens when we want to switch our view? Can we do it, or once in the negative frame are we stuck in it?
Ledgerwood research shows that our view of the world has an innate tendency to tilt toward the negative: it’s easier to go from good to bad, but far more difficult to go from bad to good.
We can practice it by simply taking a few minutes each day to write down what we are we thankful for, it can boost our well-being and health. It is also good to get in the habit of sharing the good news with others.
They say that misery loves company and that talking about our bad day will make us feel better. Thus, we talk about how horrible our day was (venting our negative emotions).
We talk a lot: about the horrible boss, about how all the little things that could go wrong in the meeting went wrong, and about all the assignments we need to do for school, and when people do not behave according to our expectations.
However, we forget to mention the good things that happened during the day, and yet, that is exactly where our minds need more practice. So let’s ask ourselves, what happened today that was good?
We can also work within our communities to focus on the upside; we can be more aware that bad tends to stick (one bad comment can stay with a person all day, all week even).
The negative tends to propagate itself: if somebody snaps at us, we will snap at somebody else, and that person will snap at somebody else; like dominoes.
What if the next time somebody snapped at us, we forgave them or let it pass? Or when we have a very grumpy waitress we leave her an extra tip?
Our minds might be built to look for negative information and to hold on to it, but we can also retrain our minds if we put some effort into it and see that the glass is a little fuller than we initially thought.
Often, negative emotions are seen as undesirable (sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger…) and we aim to control and regulate these emotions. We want to change their trajectory or expression: to feel concerned instead of anxious, or to feel annoyed instead of angry, and so forth.
Hence, the first step would be to take away the importance of bad emotions. It is alright to feel angry, or sad, and we shouldn’t feel pressured to change the way we feel. However, we can change the way we see a situation and how we react to it.
For example, when we believe that people must act fairly when somebody has mistreated us, our attentional processes will become engaged, and we will perceive this event as unfair, feeling sad or angry about it, about the person.
This would be the moment to assess and understand the situation and especially realise that we cannot control how other people act towards us, only how we act towards others.
Regulating these emotions means changing the frequency, intensity, duration or type of emotional response in the face of an event.
The way we process information is the way we control emotions. The emotional responses to a given situation will be different among individuals, but as far as we are conscious about managing our response, we will be able to decrease negative emotions.
In other words, if we control our thoughts before reacting, draw conclusions based on facts and understanding, and not based on emotions, we can avoid negative emotions and reactions.
Henceforth, being able to maintain healthier relationships with friends, family and colleagues.
Our mind is our most valuable and precious resource: we rely on it for everything.
And yet, we generally do not take time to look after our mind. Relaxation exercises and meditation can improve our state of mind and outlook on life. In fact, research shows that meditation may help you feel calm and more able to deal with life’s challenges.
Andy Puddicombe, an English author, public speaker and co-founder of Headspace, accurately portrays our busy world where the pace of life is often frantic, our minds are constantly occupied, and we are always doing something.
Can you remember when you last took the time to do absolutely nothing for at least 10 minutes? And by nothing, I mean no emails, no social media, no phone or TV, no music or reading. And absolutely no sitting and reminiscing about the past and blaming ourselves for the things we have no control over.
The result of this frantic way of life is that we get stressed, making our mind go around and around, buzzing with information, impressions, experiences and simply processing too much on a constant basis.
We do not know how to deal with that, and we get distracted; we are no longer present in the world we live in, and we are missing out on the things which are the most important to us.
It is very easy to assume that this is how life is, and we should just get on with it. However, this is not true: it does not have to be like that.
We all deal with stress in different ways. Some of us will bury ourselves in work or other kinds of distractions. Others will turn to their family and friends for support. Some people may start relying on medication; whilst others will combine different ways.
Nonetheless, research shows that being mindful, learning greater appreciation and understanding for the present moment, will help our mind to relax and become calm, focused.
Consequently, we will be able to better deal with challenges, have deeper connections with people in our surroundings, and it will help us succeed better in everything we do.
Being present in the here and now means not to be lost in thought, distracted, or overwhelmed by difficult emotions. But, how can we be more mindful and less distracted?
It can take only a few minutes a day but it has an impact on our whole life: mediation. It is often assumed that mediation is sort of stopping our thoughts, getting rid of our emotions and somehow controlling our mind. However, it is quite different from that.
Meditation is actually stepping back and reflecting: witnessing thoughts and emotions as they come and go, without judgement. If we focus too much, like in life, it becomes too intense, and we will feel overwhelmed, tight and stressed. At other times, if we relax too much we lose the red-thread (purpose) and we fall asleep.
It is about finding a balance, a focus relaxation, where we can allow thoughts to come and go without the usual involvement.
For example, if we observe an anxious thought, and we focus on it, every time we want to go away from it, we will come back until we are completely overwhelmed by this anxious thought. Before we know it, we become anxious about feeling anxious.
The funny thing is, we do this on a daily basis in life. We reinforce the storyline we keep telling ourselves (see storytelling pillar we talked about previously).
Meditation offers the opportunity to step back and get a different perspective (we spoke about that in the previous sections), to see that things aren’t always as they appear.
We cannot change every single thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way we experience it. This is the potential of meditation and mindfulness.
All we need to do is to take 10 minutes a day to step back, familiarise ourselves with the present moment and experience the great sense of focus, calmness and clarity.
JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out)
JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) would be the opposite of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, as discussed in the Mental Health Awareness article). I am personally not a big fan of either term, but at the end of the day, I had to admit to myself that FOMO was affecting me as much as anybody else.
It causes stress because I want to be part of everything, which makes it hard for me to say “no, I can’t today” when I am truly too tired.
Consequently, I try to fit everything into one day, but can only meet a portion of what I wanted to achieve. At the end of the day, I am too tired and angry at myself to see it has also been a good day.
JOMO is saying no and not feeling guilty about it, realising that there is no need to do it all today or to do it all by ourselves. It is okay to delegate work, it is alright to take a day off and not do anything productive.
It is completely acceptable to just focus on one thing at a time, day by day. To be honest, it is a really hard change, all the above steps are.
The realisation, however, that we do not need to add activities to our everyday life to get more pleasure and self-satisfaction, took a big weight off of my shoulders. We just need to enjoy the activities that we already have, and leave some for another day.
Balancing work, social life and studies are not about trying to do it all every day but to prioritise. Like trying to be optimistic does not mean ignoring the ugliest sides of life, but it means to focus on the positive as much as possible (not see only the problem, but also concentrate on the solutions).
There is way too much pressure on the young people to be part of all the trends, all the activities, being perfect, and so on. It is time to realise that everyone is who they are, and there is no one rule that we have to follow but ourselves and our needs.
If you are not sure what your needs are, take the time to implement the concepts we discussed throughout this article. Take time to care for yourself and the surrounding people. Think of something in your life you want to improve and what the first step in the right direction should be.
PS: ASK FOR HELP!
Many people do not seek treatment for mental illness due to the associated stigma. Only 44% of adults with a diagnosable mental illness receive treatment. 70-90% of people who seek proper treatment for mental health disorders witness a significant reduction in symptoms.
There is nothing wrong in seeking treatment; talking to a psychologist when we don’t know how to deal with our problems, is the healthiest thing we can do.
Treatment for mental health conditions vary depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy, or both. Many individuals work with a support system during the healing and recovery process.
And don’t forget to check on the surrounding people to make sure they’re okay!