The attainment of happiness has always been an ongoing human pursuit, from the ancient Greeks to modern day philosophers. Although the path to fulfillment varies from person to person, there’s an old adage that says that we need just three things in order to be happy: something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. What is implied in these three pillars is a foundation of health. Being healthy means having more than a “beach body” physique. Health is determined by a combination of physiological (body) and psychological (mental) factors. Let’s explore these factors and review some insight and guidance.
What does “good mental health” mean? Being mentally healthy is more than the absence of illness. Being mentally healthy does not mean being always happy. Also, this is not always possible as life is full of a range of pleasant AND unpleasant experiences. Instead, mental health is about building lifestyle habits that contribute to a meaningful life.
It is important to understand that mental wellness does not just happen to you. It takes effort and time to practice the habits and engage in the activities that cultivate it. Think about it like this: exercising your body will eventually lead to physical changes that you can see and feel a sense of accomplishment, but if you stop exercising, you will eventually lose whatever progress you made in the past. Maintaining mental wellness involves the same principles: start at a comfortable pace, learn to recognize your progress, be patient, and be persistent.
What are the habits that foster mental wellness?
- Nurture your body. You can do this by being mindful of the foods that you eat and notice how they affect your energy levels, mood and cognitive functioning (learning, memory, motivation). You can find more information on the benefits of a good nutrition regime by reading the latest post by TOVI’s Fitness and Nutrition expert, Dr. Tara Coletta.
- Get enough sleep. Our bodies are worn out during the day and sleep is necessary to put it back in shape. When we sleep, our bodies release the growth-producing hormone Somatotropin (hGH), to help restore the brain and other organs. If we stopped sleeping, or if we’re constantly sleep deprived, our immune system will suffer and we’ll be more prone to getting sick. Sleep is crucial to keep us physically and mentally healthy. Think about it like this: when you’re repairing your car, the first thing you do is to stop and shut off the engine. Well, sleeping allows our bodies to act like their own mechanic and repair themselves from daily wear and tear. Although there is no magic number of sleep hours per person, most adults need 7-8 hours per night. For tips in helping you develop healthy sleep habits, visit http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Info-sleep%20hygiene.pdf
- Exercise. In general, the more we exercise, the better our physical and mental health will be. Many people struggle with finding the time and energy to exercise because our lifestyles allow us to go about our daily lives without spending too much physical energy. We drive to work, take elevators, spend hours in front of the TV or computer and generally spend our leisure time not moving. Once people are out of shape, it is difficult for them to start exercising. However, research shows that as little as 10 minutes of exercise can promote feelings of vigor and improved mood. Scientists don’t know exactly how exercise generates all of its positive effects. We do know that exercise affects neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that are involved in mood regulation, motivation, and reward. Also, exercise makes us feel good because we know that it is good for us. The good news is that the minimum time we need to spend exercising daily in order to experience a noticeable positive mood change is 30 minutes! This time can be spent taking the stairs, walking short distances rather than driving and basically doing activities that get your body moving. For tips on how to start being more physically active visit, http://www.inc.com/chirag-kulkarni/10-to-get-30-minutes-of-exercise-a-day.html. Also, TOVI’s Body section has an excellent collection of short and accessible exercises you can do at work, home or anywhere. Remember, it is never too late to start exercising and start receiving its positive benefits.
- Learn to relax. We can improve our mental health by learning to cope with stress and practice relaxation exercises into our daily routines. Stress can negatively affect our mental health and it is important to learn how to keep it under control. While many stressors cannot be avoided, practicing stress management strategies can help us achieve a balance and prevent it from consuming our lives. For more tips on how to handle stress, Maya D’Eon, TOVI’s Stress Less Expert, has some excellent advice on the topic.
- Connect with others. Humans are social beings and our need to connect with others in order to survive and flourish is imprinted in our genes. Studies show that psychological pain (like when we feel rejected by others) is processed in the same brain regions as physical pain. This points to the immense evolutionary advantage that social support provided to our cave-dwelling ancestors and the detrimental effects of being shunned by the group. In modern times, a strong support network, such as family and friends, can help us deal with much of our life’s stressors, from daily hassles to major catastrophes. There are different ways that you can expand your social capital and find people who share your values, who understand you and can listen and provide advice, or just encourage you in your life path when you need a little nudge. If you find that you haven’t seen or heard from your friends and family in a while and you miss them, pick up the phone and call them. Make the effort and time to see them. If you’d like to expand your social network and do something that you like, join a sports team, volunteer for a cause that is important to you, join a networking or a special interest group that you are interested in. Surrounding yourself with positive and upbeat people will help you become a healthier and happier person yourself.
So, where do you go from here? How can you use this knowledge to improve your mental health and lead a more satisfying life?
The answer is simple: Start small and be consistent.
That might be as simple as going to bed half an hour earlier each night; walking at least 30 minutes a day; making time to reconnect with others and invest in some relaxation. You can decide how to start this journey, as it is yours and yours alone. And if you need a bit of extra motivation to keep going, remember the words of the wise Confucius, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop”.
Written by Lorena Ruci, Phd
Lorena specializes in social psychology (PhD, Carleton University). She is dedicated to promoting research-based interventions that improve people’s lives. She is the Associate Editor for the board of Journal of Psychology and Psychological Research International. Lorena is a Mental Health and Disability Advisor at Carleton University where she also teaches psychology.