Awareness, connection, insight and purpose are the four pillars of psychological well-being, a study concludes.
In the face of rising mental health problems, made worse by the pandemic, these pillars can help everyone improve their emotional well-being.
The researchers focus on areas that can be improved with training or other effortful practice:
- Awareness: being attentive to ones’ environment and one’s own body.
- Connections: experiencing kindness and compassion.
- Insight: increasing curiosity and self-knowledge
- Purpose: understanding one’s motivations and values.
Dr Cortland Dahl, the study’s first author, said:
“There are qualities of a healthy mind that many people don’t know are even trainable.
We don’t think of them as skills.
Many of us have thought we are hardwired to be like this or that, but the reality is these qualities are much more trainable and malleable than we think.
It’s a very empowering view of the human mind — we can learn to be in the driver’s seat of our own mind.”
Increasing awareness, for example, helps increase positive emotions and reduce stress.
Awareness also helps to reduce mentally damaging habits like distraction.
A common way to improve awareness is through meditation.
Meditation, though, describes a huge range of different practices, Dr Dahl said:
“Different types of meditation do different things for your brain, just as different sports trigger different changes in your body.
You can train your mind in different pillars that go beyond mindfulness or even gratitude practices.”
Cultivating insight, meanwhile, explained Professor Richard Davidson, study co-author, is…
“…about getting curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions.
Your brain is not set.
You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and ‘othering’ that we see in today’s society.”
Even if our circumstances are difficult to change, our minds can be trained, said Dr Dahl:
“This work is parallel with what we’re learning about human biology.
We’re just at the beginning of understanding that our biology is also malleable.
We are not born a certain fixed way.
Our brains and nervous systems and biology can be shaped.
That’s such a hopeful view to have — there are many ways we can influence our minds, brains and bodies for the better.”
A few resources to get you started
- Find out what kinds of things people say give their lives meaning. Here’s an exercise for increasing meaningfulness and a study finding that feeling you belong increases the sense of meaning.
- Mindfulness exercises that fit into your day.
- Gain self-insight through abstract thinking.
- Acts of kindness boost happiness.
- The psychological effects of being compassionate.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Dahl et al., 2020).