Mental health experts advocate wellbeing as a way of improving our lives. Wellbeing helps us stay resilient, build social support and self-efficacy, and cope with adversity. But what exactly is wellbeing and if it's so good for us, how do we get more of it?
Wellbeing – living life to our full potential
In positive psychology, wellbeing is a heightened state that’s beyond just feeling happy or having good health. It’s a condition of flourishing, where we thrive in many aspects of our lives.
Wellbeing isn’t as straightforward as just being happy. Wellbeing looks at lots of different elements that make us complex humans tick. It considers how we:
- cultivate meaning and good relationships
- use our strengths
- contribute to a ‘greater’ cause
- find pleasure in losing ourselves in things we find challenging and enjoyable.
Wellbeing also explores the deep satisfaction we find in our social connections and in accomplishing things. Humans inherently want meaning and purpose in life. One way to achieve meaning and purpose is being a part of something greater than yourself.
Wellbeing helps us:
- stay resilient when times get tough
- build social supports and self-efficacy
- emerge from our challenges even stronger, knowing we have the ability to cope with adversity.
A strong sense of wellbeing contributes to good mental health. It also helps to protect us from feelings of hopelessness and depression, acting as a ‘guardian’ of our mental health. Mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness rather it’s a state of overall wellbeing.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’
Wellbeing is about making a life where we can contribute to a greater society. Where we can have a more fulfilling existence with meaningful and supportive relationships. Wellbeing gives us a way to discover and explore our strengths. Wellbeing helps us live life to our full potential.
The pursuit of wellbeing and happiness has been going on for centuries. It began over 2,000 years ago in China, Greece and India with great thinkers like Confucius, Socrates and Buddha.
A pioneer of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman, tells us that wellbeing is made up of five main factors that contribute to human flourishing. He believes we should choose to maximise all five elements to achieve greater wellbeing, and in turn flourish.
Five main factors that contribute to our wellbeing
These ‘building blocks’ of wellbeing are easily remembered as the acronym ‘PERMA’:
Feelings of pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, comfort. We can take responsibility for our feelings, cultivating happiness and gratitude.
Living an engaged life, being absorbed and connected to activities to the point where we lose track of time and effort (flow).
Connections to other people and relationships give us support, meaning and purpose in life. Positive relationships have been found to have enormous influence on our wellbeing.
Being part of and working towards something that’s much larger than yourself rather than purely pursuing material wealth, it might be a political party, a charity, leading your local soccer team, helping your religious group, school council, or being a passionate bush regenerator, refugee advocate or volunteer in a shelter. Spiritual people have been found to have more meaningful lives, because they believe in something greater than themselves.
Pursuing success, achievement and mastery of things for their own sake can build self-esteem, self-efficacy (useful in tough times) and a sense of accomplishment.
Working on each of these factors (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment) can help us flourish in all aspects of life.
It’s good to know there are lots of things we can do to enhance our wellbeing. These skills are now being taught in some schools and to business leaders across the world.
We can all learn new ways to feel more positive emotions, have stronger relationships, and find meaningful work.
The following elements all contribute to wellbeing and resilience:
- finding your strengths and using them
- mindfulness and meditation
- lifestyle – sleep, exercise and diet.
Positive psychologists have found that some of the happiest people on the planet are those who have discovered their unique strengths and used their strengths for a purpose that’s greater than their own personal goals or benefit. In wellbeing theory, there are 24 strengths that underpin PERMA. These fall under the following six categories:
- Wisdom (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective)
- Courage (bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest or enthusiasm)
- Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)
- Justice (teamwork, citizenship, fairness, leadership)
- Temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-control)
- Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality)
Interestingly, these six categories are valued in almost every culture.
Benefits of finding and using your unique strengths
Help improve your 'pillars' of wellbeing
Finding and using your strengths can contribute to all our ‘pillars’ of wellbeing (PERMA), helping us in:
- feeling more positive emotion
- feeling completely engaged
- finding more meaning
- achieving more in life
- fostering healthier relationships.
Overcome greater challenges and show resilience
Research has found that people who use their character strengths experience greater self-esteem and ‘self-efficacy’. In other words, they feel good about themselves and have the confidence to tackle bigger issues and problems as they arise in life.
Feel truly content
We can also use our signature strengths to achieve pleasure and gratification through the activities we enjoy.
Make a real difference
We can use our strengths to serve something greater than ourselves, creating a more meaningful life and helping others.
How can I find out what my strengths are?
Psychologist Martin Seligman tells us we all have our own signature strengths.
- A signature strength has the following features:
- A sense of authenticity (feeling like ‘this is the real me’)
- A feeling of excitement when using it
- Learning very quickly when first learning or practicing the strength
- Wanting to find new ways of using it
- Feeling invigorated rather than exhausted when using your strength
- Pursuing projects that revolve around the strength
- Feeling joy, enthusiasm or flow whilst using it.
Using your strengths in new ways
Once you know what your strengths are, find a new way to use one or two of them.You can achieve more happiness and meaning in life by applying your strengths to everything you do, and using them to help you overcome challenges.
It’s also great to realise and celebrate the character strengths in other people. Make time to cultivate and use your strengths in everyday life.
For example, if your signature strength is:
- kindness – find a way to help others in need like volunteering at a soup kitchen or animal shelter, helping kids learn to read at a local school. Scientists have found that practicing kindness produces the most ‘reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise … tested’ (Seligman 2011)
- love of learning – enrol in a new course or start reading a new book about something that challenges you
- humour – start a blog with your best work; ring a friend and try out some new jokes
- creativity – jot down some ideas for a script or book, and start writing it; take pictures or make drawings and make them into something to give as presents
- hope – visit people in hospital, help with respite care, write to the local paper about something positive you’re hopeful about
- appreciation of beauty and excellence – walk somewhere new to appreciate nature, visit a gallery you haven’t been to in ages, start a new book group or film group
- leadership – coach your kids’ soccer team, rally your neighbours to achieve something for your community.
Think about how applying your strengths in new ways makes you feel afterwards, ask yourself:
- Did it challenge and engage you?
- Did you meet new people?
- Did you feel like you lost sense of time and self-awareness (flow)?
- Did you feel satisfaction or pleasure or enthusiasm?
- Do you want to do it again?
Have you ever been so immersed in doing something that you looked up and had no idea of what time it was? Did you find you weren’t jaded or tired, even though you’d been doing it for a long time?
Flow is a state of complete immersion in an activity
Flow happens when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you’re no longer aware of time or worries, and even lose your sense of self.
One of the pioneers of the concept of flow is Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s also one of the founders of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi first developed the concept of flow when he was trying to understand when people enjoyed themselves most.
What does being in flow feel like?
Csikszentmihalyi describes being in flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.’
Csikszentmihalyi's factors to identify flow include:
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment and the activity itself
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience
- experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding
- losing all sense of time passing
- non-awareness of any physical needs.
Flow is a state of joy, creativity and total involvement. Our problems disappear, and there’s a feeling of transcendence.
You’re usually applying all your attention to something challenging, and concentrating so much that you enter a ‘flow’ state. Flow happens when you’re quite challenged or doing something you love. It happens in different ways for all of us.
Some sportspeople achieve a state of flow and describe it as being ‘in the zone’. Others experience flow whilst painting or playing a musical instrument.
What are the benefits of flow?
Csikszentmihalyi found that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of flow.
‘The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.’ – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When we are in a flow state of consciousness, we are so completely absorbed in an activity that we feel:
- effortlessly in control
- a loss of self-consciousness (forget yourself and all your worries)
- an expression of creative and higher order abilities
- a heightened sense of awareness of the present (also known as 'being in the zone')
- we are so focused
- there is no negative thinking or discomfort.
Flow can also improve our performance and helps us master new skills. For example, in a sporting performance, musical concert, teaching others, learning, pursuing a creative task, a work task, or exam situation.
Things you can do to find your flow
Flow can happen in whatever it is that you’re completely absorbed in. Flow can happen while you’re studying a new topic or learning a new skill – something that requires you to extend/challenge yourself, such as:
- surfing, skiing, rock climbing
- building, painting
- solving puzzles
- playing backgammon, chess or cards
- playing sport
- doing yoga
- playing music
- playing an instrument
- on a challenging bushwalk
- writing, reading
- drawing, designing
- at work - when you're totally engaged in the task.
Mindfulness is good for your health, happiness and wellbeing. Through mindfulness we can enhance our experience of the present. Research shows mindfulness can even have a positive effect on our brain function.
Mindfulness has been adapted for use in the treatment of depression, especially preventing relapse and assisting with mood regulation.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness training adapted from Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, without making judgment. It allows us to experience our body and feelings in each moment with acceptance, and helps free us of mental ‘clutter’.
When we are being mindful, we simply allow our thoughts to come and go. We don’t need to question or judge what’s happening in our thoughts. If we can cultivate this ability to observe our thoughts as simply thoughts without ‘buying in’ to them, we can free ourselves of our tendency to overthink and be critical of ourselves and others.
How does mindfulness help us?
Our lives are so fast and full of stresses and distractions, it’s easy to run on autopilot (mindlessly) and become agitated by all the conflicting thoughts and buzz in our heads.
Mindfulness helps us stop getting caught up in thinking about the past or worrying about the future. It helps us slow down and be in the ‘now’.
Mindfulness can change the way our brain and nervous system function. It can allow our parasympathetic nervous system to take over and place us in a state of rest, healing and restoration.
When people practice mindfulness, they are able to achieve lasting positive changes to their wellbeing.
Mindfulness can help improve:
- our concentration
- our relationship
- show we feel pain emotionally and physically
- how we deal with our problems
- our clarity – without all the negative thoughts cluttering our head, assisting decision making and higher order thinking.
Other benefits of mindfulness
Regular practice of mindfulness can:
- increase positivity and how happy we feel about life
- help us manage stress
- increase brain function – improving memory and creativity
- improve how well we get along with others.
It can also:
- be useful in helping many health conditions that arise due to stress like anxiety and depression
- slow down ‘hypervigilance’, where we’re constantly stressed and ‘on guard’ for danger
- stop us dwelling on negative thought patterns about ourselves and others.
Mindfulness-based cognitive behaviour therapy
Mindfulness is now the basis of mindfulness-based cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. Our brains can become better at remembering negative things and start fixing on them – rather than focusing on positive thoughts and the good times. Rumination and dwelling on the negative can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. In CBT, people are taught ways to challenge their negative thinking patterns.
Mindfulness helps people learn to just observe their negative thoughts and accept that they are just thoughts. They learn ways to give them less energy and how to respond to them in different ways.
Ways you can start being mindful in everyday life
The key to increasing mindfulness is to keep trying. It can be tricky when you first begin. The more you practice mindfulness the easier it becomes and the more benefits are felt.
Try mindfulness meditation
There are thousands of guided examples online and apps built just for this.
We can use our breath as an ‘anchor’ for our emotions.
Try this for a few minutes each day:
- find a quiet space
- spend a few minutes noticing your breathing
- feel your breath entering and leaving your nostrils
- feel the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
Body scan meditation
Find a quiet and comfortable space. Start with your breath as a focus, and then slowly move through each part of your body starting with the tips of your toes, paying particular attention to the way it feels and whether there’s any tension there.
Take some breaths, and feel the muscles in that area relax.
Move onto the next part of your body until you work all the way up to your facial muscles and the top of your head.
It’s an excellent way to enter a deeply relaxed state.
Have a walk outside
This is a good one to do on a quick lunch break.
Take time to notice aspects of a place in detail.
Feel the sensation of your feet as they strike the ground.
Feel the air on your skin.
Take some deep breaths.
Notice the smell of the grass or people’s lunches. Look at the way a tree bends, notice something beautiful like the shimmer of water in a puddle or lake, notice the sounds of your surroundings.
Try to stay in the present. Let other thoughts go and enjoy this moment.
Be outside and close your eyes
Sit outside in the evening and simply close your eyes.
Notice the smells and sounds of your surroundings. Enjoy the beauty and feeling of taking this time out to just 'be.'
Recognise that thoughts are just thoughts – you don’t need to react to them.
Remember the good times
Remember positive things that happened in your day, or recall a good memory when something great happened or you were appreciated for something.
Remember what it was like, the weather, the sounds, smells, the songs that were playing, how you were feeling – happy, proud, excited, calm or intense.
Take some full breaths as you remember the scene and how you felt at the time.
Savour the moment
Savouring gives deliberate and conscious attention to pleasure and enjoyment. You might like to share an enjoyable experience with someone else. Tell them how much you’re enjoying it.
Listen to your favourite music. To sharpen your perception, close your eyes and savour the experience. Allow yourself to become completely absorbed.
Download our mindfulness fact sheet.
Practicing yoga is another way we can achieve greater wellbeing through improved health, clarity and greater self-awareness.
Yoga is an ancient practice, developed in India over 2,500 years ago. It explores the complex nature of humans and how our mind, body and spirit works together. Yoga uses a series of postures and breathing techniques to help us exercise, relax and meditate.
Over the past 15 or 20 years, there has been growing interest in the health benefits of yoga and we’re seeing more rigorous scientific studies into the benefits of yoga.
Benefits of yoga
- Yoga slows your breath and helps you focus on the present.
- Yoga shifts you from the sympathetic nervous system (or the fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system is calming and restorative).
- It helps lower breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs.
Other possible benefits of yoga include:
- building flexibility and strength
- better posture
- stress management
- building self-esteem as you improve
- alleviating anxiety and depression
- managing pain
- helping sleep
- enhancing self-care and hope as yoga practice makes positive change
- calming the mind
- developing a sense of spirituality and concepts greater than the self
- enhancing gratitude and positive self-reflection
- immune-boosting effects
- providing aerobic exercise in more vigorous classes like Ashtanga.
How can I start practicing yoga?
You don’t need to be super athletic or flexible to enjoy yoga. Anyone can give it a try. It’s suitable for people of all ages and all levels of fitness. You just need to find a style that’s safe and right for you.
You can find a yoga teacher in most towns and suburbs, or you could play a DVD or find a good yoga teacher online. It’s something you can do at home for yourself.
What happens in a yoga class?
All classes are different depending on the style of yoga and your teacher’s philosophies and training. You might need to try a couple of different styles of yoga to find the one that suits you best.
Most classes include:
- yogic philosophy, intentions and self-enquiry
- breathing exercises
- a series of postures
- meditation and mental focus practice
- return to outward focus and reflection.
Yoga and finding flow
Yoga is a great way to find a state of ‘flow’. When we’re in flow, we’re devoted to one activity. Our perception of time changes and we lose sense of self, pain, and worries.
Gratitude can have enormous benefits in all aspects of life. It helps us flourish at home, in relationships and at work. Gratitude is about giving thanks and celebrates life’s good things. It helps us build positive emotions.
Cultivating gratitude costs us little or no money, takes only small amounts of time and effort, yet it yields enormous benefits to ourselves and those around us.
When we make time to celebrate the things we love and are thankful for, we are also living more mindfully.
What are the other benefits of gratitude?
When we live with gratitude, we start to appreciate all the things that make us who we are. Our constant heartbeat, our ability to sing or stretch or laugh. The way our bodies move and carry us. Our friends and colleagues.
Respecting and being thankful for even small things around us can enhance our energy, mental health and overall wellbeing.
Gratitude spreads positivity
When someone receives our gratitude, we not only make ourselves feel good; we spread happiness and strength to the recipient. When we recognise and appreciate the strengths in others it helps them feel positive about themselves too.
Gratitude strengthens relationships
Showing gratitude in our personal lives can also strengthen our closest relationships, opening up better communication and trust. People with strong social supports tend to be more resilient when dealing with challenges in life.
Gratitude is good for workers
Managers who simply say “thank you” and show genuine appreciation to their staff often find their staff want to stay on board and keep working hard. Some have even stated they’d prefer thanks and acknowledgment to financial incentives.
Gratitude improves psychological health
Researchers have found links between gratitude and wellbeing. It can boost happiness and even reduce depression. Showing gratitude over-rides negative and destructive emotions like anger, envy, frustration and regret.
Gratitude helps you celebrate others’ strengths
It reduces social comparisons – rather than feeling envy of others’ achievements, you can appreciate their success.
Gratitude can even help you sleep better
Spending 15 minutes writing in a gratitude journal at night can enable people to sleep better and longer.
Gratitude can increase resilience
Studies have shown gratitude has a role in overcoming trauma. Recognising all you have to be thankful for, even at some of the toughest times in your life, can build your resilience.
An 'attitude of gratitude' makes us more optimistic
Developing an 'attitude of gratitude' makes us more optimistic and helps us celebrate all the things we can be thankful for, rather than focusing on the negative. Optimism makes us happier, healthier and can even increase how long we live.
Some things to think about
- What are some things that make you happy?
- What kinds of things inspire you?
- What are the things (or people) who nurture you?
- What experiences and thoughts do you want more of?
- How do you express gratitude?
Some ways to cultivate gratitude in your life include:
- slowing down and appreciate some simple things around you – like the coolness of a breeze or a steaming cup of tea or a wonderful song.
- saying thanks to others often – and do it with authenticity.
- writing a note to someone in your life who has done something helpful or special, who you’ve not thanked properly.
- connecting with the great outdoors – being outside in nature helps us de-stress and put things into perspective. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face and be thankful for the fresh air, tiny creatures on a leaf, or clouds scudding across the sky.
- counting your blessings. Each night for a week, write down three good things that happened that day. They might just be little things like “my mum called” or “a nice person smiled at me”, or “I was at work 5 minutes early” – or it might be something really big like getting a promotion or making a team.
- celebrating with family. Sit down as a family at dinner and talk about the three best things that happened to each of you that day. Ask why this good thing happened and how you can find more good things in the future.
- learning to forgive. Holding feelings of regret, anger, jealousy and bitterness undermines our wellbeing. Learning to forgive can change these negative feelings. When we forgive, we can make these feelings neutral, and even sometimes feel positive and repair relationships.
- receiving thanks from others with grace, and allow yourself to be appreciated and loved.
Lifestyle factors like exercise, diet and sleep are associated with improved wellbeing and can influence our mental health.
Have you noticed that going for a swim, dancing or playing a game of tennis makes you feel great? We now know there’s a strong link between exercise and improved mood. This happens as ‘feel good’ chemicals called endorphins are released from the brain.
Benefits of exercise
There are many proven benefits to building in regular exercise into your day. Many studies now show that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Regular exercise could also involve developing or improving a skill (say volleying in tennis or striking a goal in soccer). Mastering new skills helps build self-esteem and being in team sports can help us make new friends, increase life satisfaction and improve our mood.
There are also numerous health benefits in terms of weight management, cardiovascular health and fitness.
More research is being undertaken into how physical exercise can buffer age-related cognitive decline.
Exercise can also:
- boost your energy
- build self-confidence and feelings of accomplishment
- help you be more sociable (and working out in groups is often better than doing it alone)
- help you get better sleep
- help reduce stress
- distract you from your worries and negative thought patterns
- boost creativity and productivity
- boost memory
- help you relax after a hard day at work
- get you outside and away from distractions and screens.
Getting more exercise
Try being active every day for at least 30 minutes, even if it’s doing some housework, walking to the shops or gardening.
Things you can try to build more exercise into your life:
- Mix it up: If you vary the type of exercise and place where you do it, you’ll stave off boredom, try using music as well.
- Play a team sport: It feels more like playing and less like hard work.
- Try a stand-up desk or walking meetings at work.
- Get out at lunch and walk if you have a desk job, even if it’s for 15 minutes.
- Plan a walk with your partner or friends somewhere interesting or beautiful each week, rather than watching TV.
- Volunteer for a group like Meals on Wheels where you’re moving all the time and helping others.
Good nutrition is important for our health and wellbeing. Maintaining a healthy diet with plenty of fresh food, limited processed foods, and prebiotic and probiotic foods, has a major contribution to good health.
What can I try?
Nutritionists recommend diets with lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and with few processed foods or added sugars.
Everyday try to:
- limit processed foods (most things that come in a box or a can)
- eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Make veggies the biggest portion on your plate
- improve your gut health by adding more prebiotic foods like oats, bananas, watermelon, chickpeas, lentils, garlic, onion, beetroot, and fennel
- add more probiotic foods each day like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi
- increase fibre from natural foods
- increase foods that fight inflammation like berries, tomatoes, turmeric, ginger
- increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acids. Eat oily fish a couple of times a week. Flax and chia seeds are also good sources of omega 3.
Sleep needs vary across our ages and lifestyles. Good quality sleep and regular sleep patterns are crucial to our wellbeing.
Recommended sleep times
Primary school aged children: 9 to 11 hours
Teenagers: 8 to 10 hours
Adults: 7 to 9 hours
Older adults: may need less sleep of 7 to 8 hours
Getting a good night's sleep
There are lots of things you can try, such as:
- making your bedroom an environment that’s a haven removed from the stresses of the day and as dark as possible
- keeping regular times for going to bed and getting up
- getting some sunlight during the day
- trying a calming bedtime routine. Have a warm bath, drink warm milk or herbal teas
- using lavender oil to promote a sense of calm
- taking away all electronic gadgets like phones, TVs and computers
- meditating last thing at night or writing in a gratitude journal
- reviewing your day over a couple of minutes like a show-reel and then letting it all go as you prepare for sleep
For more information on getting better sleep, go to the Australian Sleep Health Foundation.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2011) Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.
Bite Back, the Black Dog Institute’s mental health and wellbeing site for youth.
Authentic Happiness, University of Pennsylvania and links to signature strengths.
Pursuit of happiness, bringing the science of happiness to life