What does it mean to be a psychologically healthy person? Many people assume that good mental health means feeling happy most of the time. Indeed, studies show that positive emotions have many benefits. They increase resilience to stress and encourage us to learn, grow, and bond with others.
However, there’s much more to good mental health than pleasant emotions. Research shows that a truly satisfying life includes purpose and direction. We need to act in accordance with deeply held values and contribute to things we care about, such as relationships with family and friends, meaningful work, a community, or other worthy causes.
Psychologists use the term well-being for the type of happiness that’s based on meaning, purpose, and fulfilling one’s potential. Research on psychological well-being has identified six important components.
Autonomy is the ability to make your own decisions about how to think and behave, rather than over-relying on others’ opinions or approval. Autonomous people resist social pressures that are inconsistent with their inner standards or preferences. They pursue freely chosen goals that they genuinely value.
Competence means having knowledge, skills, and abilities and using them to solve problems and accomplish worthwhile tasks. Competent people can manage the responsibilities and demands of daily life and get things done. They make good use of their opportunities and arrange their living environments in ways that suit them.
3. Healthy relationships
Most people need connections with others. Some enjoy large circles of friends, family, and coworkers; others prefer more solitude and independence. The ability to develop caring, trusting, and supportive relationships is an important element of psychological health, whether you want many relationships or only a few.
Self-accepting people understand that, like everyone else, they have strengths and weaknesses. They recognize that life has ups and downs; that everyone makes mistakes, misses opportunities, and feels regret, disappointment, and other unpleasant emotions. They’re understanding and nonjudgmental of themselves and how their lives have gone so far.
5. Personal growth
People who value personal growth are open to learning and new experiences. They recognize that perspectives change with time and see themselves as maturing and developing. They’re interested in broadening their horizons and fulfilling their potential.
6. Purpose in life
People with purpose have a sense of direction in life. They understand what they value most deeply, such as being a loving parent, supportive friend, productive professional, or contributing member of a community. They find satisfaction in setting goals and working to achieve them and feel that their lives have meaning.
Cultivating these six elements of well-being isn’t always pleasant or enjoyable. Standing on our own principles can be scary, especially when others disapprove. Managing daily demands can be stressful. Even the healthiest relationships have awkward, uncomfortable moments. It’s painful to face up to our failures and shortcomings, to feel clumsy and nervous while learning new skills.
Even so, research consistently shows that people who cultivate meaning and purpose, develop skills and competencies, exercise autonomy, attend to their relationships, and try to contribute to things they care about, even when it’s stressful and difficult, are psychologically healthier than people who don’t. They have higher self-esteem, lower risk of depression, and greater satisfaction with their lives.
How mindfulness cultivates well-being
Mindfulness means paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of friendly curiosity and nonjudgmental acceptance. Research shows that practicing mindfulness improves all six elements of psychological well-being. This happens in several important ways.
Mindfulness helps us discern what we truly value. It’s hard to act on your true priorities when you’re not sure what they are. If you’re paying attention to daily life in an open-minded, friendly, curious way, you’ll begin to notice things. Small moments of meaning and satisfaction will appear, perhaps when you’re talking with someone, working on a problem or project, or reading about something. These moments are important indicators of what matters most to you.
Mindfulness provides insight into our own motivations. If you’re paying attention, you’ll develop insight about what drives your behavior. For example, you may notice when you’re acting on other people’s standards or preferences rather than your own. Maybe you fear disapproval or are trying to make someone happy. Be open to these moments without judging yourself. They’re telling you something useful. Depending on the situation, you may decide to comply with others’ needs or wishes, or you might change your behavior to fit your own priorities. Mindfulness will help you choose wisely.
Mindfulness helps us balance the six elements of wellbeing. We can’t give top priority to all six elements at once. Their relative importance changes with time and circumstances. Striving for personal growth must be balanced with accepting yourself as you are. Acting with autonomy must be balanced with the needs and wishes of loved ones. Mindful awareness helps us determine the most helpful balance for each situation.
Mindfulness helps us manage the inevitable discomfort. Pursuing valued goals can be painful and difficult. We run into obstacles and make mistakes. Negative thoughts and emotions come up. Mindfulness helps us see what’s happening in each moment and act with intention. It reminds us to treat ourselves kindly, work constructively to solve problems, and accept what we can’t change, rather than doing something harmful, like lashing out in anger or getting drunk.
Mindful awareness takes practice. It’s not a quick fix. However, you can start learning to be more mindful by paying attention to your senses.
- Observe what you see around you: colors, shapes, textures, movements.
- Notice the sounds in the environment.
- Feel the sensations in your body as you move around.
- Observe your breath as it flows in and out.
- When you eat, notice the aromas, flavors, and textures.
- Be present with others. Notice their facial expressions and really hear what they say.
- As best you can, let go of criticisms and judgments and adopt an attitude of friendly interest and acceptance.
Think of these exercises as experiments and see what you learn. Over time, there’s a good chance your psychological well-being will improve. To learn more, seek out a mindfulness class or work with a book that includes exercises and guidance for how to practice them.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081.
Some of this material was excerpted and adapted from The Practicing Happiness Workbook: How Mindfulness Can Free You From the Four Psychological Traps That Keep You Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed, with permission of the publisher, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Baer. Published in the United Kingdom as Practising Happiness: How Mindfulness Can Free You From Psychological Traps and Help You Build the Life You Want, Constable and Robinson, 2014. For more information see www.ruthbaer.com.
Learn more about author Ruth Baer, Ph.D.