Researchers and scientists believe they know what promotes well-being and good mental health. The concepts are simple and nothing is mentioned at all about owning stuff or watching tele :-)
"Between 2006 and 2008 the United Kingdom government wanted to find out how to increase the population’s mental health and wellbeing. Over 400 experts in psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, education, and economics from across the world were asked to review current knowledge on mental health and well-being....The resulting actions (Five Ways to Wellbeing) are a set of evidence-based actions to improve personal wellbeing. They can’t change our circumstances but building them into our daily lives can help us flourish, no matter what our starting point" (Lotus Health. NZ)
I have borrowed this concept - re-adjusted it a little - and given you the information which 100's of researchers say are the keys to well-being. In brief - these are:
Connect - Be Active - Take Notice - Keep Learning - Give
A deep human need to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others. Deep connection with others releases oxytocin (the 'feel good' chemical) and can reduce cortisol levels (often associated with stress). Even connecting with (eg petting) a pet has been shown to reduce blood pressure - hence the idea of 'animal therapy' in some rest homes. Connecting locally can enhance a feelings of trust (associated with community happiness) and can build a supportive community around you - allowing you to both give and receive support when necessary.
Make an effort to connect with friends, family, neighbours and strangers. Smile and make conversation at the supermarket, have a chat to the neighbour, phone a friend. Be brave! If you need a way to meet people to increase your circle of friends, try a site such as 'Meetup.com' – it is an organisation for all walks of life to meet, socialise, share ideas and make new friends. You can join a walking / hiking group and kill two birds (connecting and exercise - see below) with one stone. If there are no groups that suit you - start one up!
Exercise has been shown to improve mood and has been used successfully to reduce depression and anxiety. It has numerable health benefits - reducing likelihood of developing diabetes, assisting with weight loss, decreases risk of cardiovascular disease and can improve sleep and improve general energy levels. Exercising outside has been shown to be even better; increasing levels of vitamin D, exposing yourself to negative ions (thought to reduce tension) and good bacteria which can improve gut health. Being in 'green spaces' has been suggested to promote well-being more so than being in the city.
Find whatever exercise works for you; walking, swimming, running, star-jumps. Try to get your blood pumping and build up a mild sweat. Sweating can help rid the body of toxins (although this is controversial see study here) Sitting for long periods of time has been shown to decrease your life expectancy – even if you are doing exercise outside of those times. So get up regularly, swing your arms, move your legs, take a walk.
"Be curious and catch sight of the beautiful, remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Try savouring the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you" (Mental Health Foundation NZ)
One way to do this is by developing the skill known as Mindfulness. It teaches us to be aware of the present moment, to find appreciation in the little things in life. It can also promote behavioral changes when you notice that something that you are doing no longer 'resonates' with who you are, or who you want to be. Paying attention to how you are feeling, physically, mentally means you are more likely to intervene earlier when you notice things aren't right. Paying attention (having gratitude) to the good things in your life enhances your happiness levels significantly and trains the brain to seek out the positive rather than being focused on the negative.
Take regular breaks in your day to look around you. Take 'mini-moments' to pay attention (STOP Stop, Take a Breath, Observe where you are and what you are doing, Proceed with awareness), seek out something pleasant that you can see/hear/appreciate. It may mean putting down the smart phone, lifting your head and looking around once in a while. Try the gratitude exercise - naming three good things every evening before you go to sleep that gave you pleasure during the day and that you are thankful for. Pay attention to your first mouthful of food - slow down and get outside regularly - even if it is just for a two minute breather during a busy work day.
Learning encourages social interaction and increases self-esteem and feelings of competency. Behaviour directed by personal goals to achieve something new has been shown to increase reported life satisfaction. It doesn't matter what you choose to do - cook a special meal, take on a work related challenge or find a new hobby. Do something which you believe you will enjoy, will give you 'flow', challenge you a little and give you a feeling of accomplishment.
There are amazing free courses online through major international universities (check out Coursera and Edx), or even better yet, see if your local high school is still offering night classes – this way you get to connect and learn at the same time. Think about something which you have always dreamed of doing - and set a new goal for yourself around that (or a number of them; short term, medium term, long term). Strive for something, an achievement, an outcome. Even if the goal doesn't eventuate - you will learn and grow along the way.
Studies in neuroscience have shown that cooperative behaviour activates reward areas of the brain, suggesting we are hard wired to enjoy helping one another. Individuals actively engaged in their communities report higher well-being and their help and gestures have knock-on effects for others. But it is not simply about a one-way transaction of giving. Building reciprocity and mutual exchange - through giving and receiving - is the simplest and most fundamental way of building trust between people and creating positive social relationships and resilient communities.
Whether you bake a cake, do some voluntary work, let someone else take the car park, help someone move house or just lend an open ear and heart to someone - any way that you give a little of yourself to someone can improve your and their well-being, and the ripples this creates can affect a whole community. Choose something small, that won't leave you depleted (of time or money). Even a smile can be a welcome lift to someone's day. :-)
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