It’s ludicrous to assume you can stop brushing your teeth twice a day as long as you have a full dental clean every six months. Why then do we often treat our psychological health as if we could afford to stop looking after it, delegating it to some date in the future when we have too much else on?
Most people readily accept that looking after their physical health involves daily habits and behaviours (brushing our teeth, drinking enough water, washing our hands regularly). Still, when it comes to our psychological health and wellbeing, we are rarely taking immediate action. How many times have you thought, I’ll wait until that big holiday to finally relax, or I’ll get through this busy period, then I’ll enjoy life? When we think about our wellbeing, we can fall into the trap of taking much less frequent action, adopting a future-oriented approach instead of applying daily habits to sustain our wellbeing.
The narrow definition of self-care as an expensive or time-consuming one-off event is based on a common misunderstanding of the definition of the term itself. When looking at our own personal self-care, we should be addressing how wellbeing can be achieved and maintained sustainably. Infrequent and sporadic actions, thinly and irregularly scattered across long stretches of time, will probably not be sufficient to keep you flourishing in life.
The key to maintaining high levels of mental and emotional wellbeing is to make it a priority in your daily actions. Think about your health and wellbeing as a bank account you are drawing from every day to ‘pay’ your way through the ups and downs of normal life both at home and at work. From getting the kids ready for school every morning, dealing with demanding clients, navigating difficult conversations, being overlooked for a promotion or getting stuck in a traffic jam; these type of events are likely to draw on our pool of resilience and psychological wellbeing regularly. The question is, what can you do to ensure that this inner reservoir remains filled to a healthy capacity?
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing model explains five types of behaviours which together create enhanced and sustainable levels of emotional, mental, physical and social wellbeing. The report published by the New Economics Foundation sets out five different behavioural categories which together build resilience, boost wellbeing and lower your risk of developing mental health problems. They are grouped together into behavioural domains:
- Keep learning
- Be active
- Take notice
This pillar is about the importance of positive, meaningful social relationships–both at work and in your personal life. Feeling close to and valued by other people is a fundamental human need and a key contributor to psychological wellbeing. Take time every day to feel connected to others:
- Ask someone how they are going at the moment, and take the time to find out what is really going on in their lives and what is important to them.
- Consider talking to someone directly (either in person, via video conference or on the phone) instead of sending an email.
- Invite a colleague to spend the lunch break together.
- Get to know your neighbours.
- Schedule a dedicated time of the week to talk to friends or family members, e.g. by visiting, over the phone, Skype or Zoom video technology (variety helps).
Regular physical activity is not only good for physical resilience (maintaining a healthy weight, reducing the rate of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and increasing blood flow and oxygenation of the brain) but it can also result in a greater sense of wellbeing, better sleep quality, stress reduction and lower rates of anxiety. Physical activity can also assist by reducing symptoms of depression and protecting against the illness itself. In older people, long term and regular physical activity is associated with significantly better cognitive function reducing the impact of mental decline. Ideas for daily physical exercise may include a mix of activities, including:
- walking or riding your bike to work instead of public transport or the car
- regular bush walks with family or friends
- making a habit of taking the stairs instead of the lift
- organising a team walk during lunch break
- or participating in a match or tournament involving the most popular sport amongst your colleagues.
It is no secret that keeping your brain active contributes to your psychological wellbeing. Mastering a new skill is also connected to enhanced self-esteem, a sense of achievement and confidence in your ability to navigate an increasingly complex world. On the broadest level, learning is about challenging entrenched ways of seeing and doing things, developing new neural connections in your brain increasing mental flexibility. This can, but doesn’t necessarily have to, include formal training. Give some of the following ideas a try to foster a learning mindset:
- Learn a new language (and maybe reward yourself with a trip to the country), or a musical instrument you have always liked.
- Read a variety of books, including those you would not normally pick up yourself (joining a book club helps with this).
- Watch a TED Talk, listen to podcasts, or sign up for a newsletter about a specific topic of interest.
- Watch a documentary about a topic that sounds intriguing to you, even if it’s outside your normal interests.
- Check out the vast number of professional development courses offered by top global Universities and other educational institutions–many of them completely free on online platforms such as edX, Coursera, Udacity.
Helping others and volunteering is associated with increased personal wellbeing and higher levels of self-reported meaning and purpose in life. Research has shown that individuals who report a greater interest in helping others are more likely to rate themselves as happy. Being of service to others, or making a positive difference in someone’s day (or life) doesn’t have to cost you much in terms of monetary expenditure or time investment. Some possible suggestions could be:
- Help a new colleague settle into their job by taking the time to explain key processes and documents, or giving them a tour of your favourite coffee and lunch spots.
- Smile at others, pay them a genuine compliment and ask how they are doing.
- Give your time or skills by volunteering, for example, at the local community centre, sports club or church.
- When cleaning out your wardrobe or garage, don’t throw things out that are still in good condition and could be useful to others–take them to a charity shop instead.
- Do something nice for a colleague, friend or stranger. Here are some ideas for random acts of kindness which will not only brighten up someone else’s day but may also lift your own mood and provide a lasting boost to your emotional wellbeing.
This wellbeing pillar is about being present in the current moment, without judgment. Being in the now prevents our restless minds from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future–which is something most people do on a regular basis. It also undermines wellbeing, as Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert summarised their research A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Using a mobile phone app to gather 250,000 data points on participants’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, the researchers found that people typically spend about 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than the present. To be more grounded and present in the moment, you could:
- take three to five deep and slow breaths before you join the next meeting to collect your thoughts and calm your nervous system
- eat your meals with all your senses–slow down and focus on the taste sensations in your mouth, the smell and look of the food or the sounds you make when chewing
- take a different route to work, or have lunch at a place you wouldn’t usually visit
- do a quick body scan at your desk to identify and purposeful stretch and relax any tense muscles
- at the end of each day, ask yourself what you are grateful for, or what has gone particularly well today.
If you would like to learn more about the 5 Ways to Wellbeing model and further strategies to strengthen your wellbeing and resilience, have a look at the on-demand CPD resource, Building resilient habits: mental and behavioural strategies (free for members). You can also contact the QLS Solicitor Support service at firstname.lastname@example.org or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.
 The recommendations are based on a comprehensive international research project into mental wellbeing commissioned by the UK government’s Foresight Project in 2008. It synthesised research from 400 international scientists and explored the challenges for improving the mental wellbeing of the whole population.