When we are mentally healthy, we cope productively with life’s inevitable stresses, lower the risk of developing many physical diseases and ailments, have closer, satisfying relationships, and feel more engaged, fulfilled, and content with our lives. Robust, resilient mental health is not something to take for granted, and research in the positive psychology field increasingly shows that the happiest people in the world are consistently thinking and acting in ways that support their overall well-being. Just like we know we must exercise to keep our physical bodies in shape, incorporating daily practices that boost mental health is also imperative.
Making small but consistent changes can have a major impact. Consider these five research-backed habits that provide a foundation for mental health and happiness:
1. Develop an attitude of gratitude: Choosing to focus on those things in your life that you’re grateful for, even if only for a few minutes a day, has a big effect on mental health. Research supports the conclusion that gratitude practices work to keep one’s outlook balanced by stimulating areas in the brain that regulate stress and promote feelings of pleasure. Gratitude practices can come in many forms. Journaling, noting three things each day to be grateful for, and expressing thanks to others are all associated with similar benefits.
2. Adopt a lifestyle for mind and body health: Nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns are intimately linked to mental health outcomes. Eating a balanced diet that includes fresh vegetables and fruits and minimizes processed foods, refined sugar and low quality fats is protective for your brain and can decrease the risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Exercising releases endorphins that bring about feelings of well-being, and a regular fitness routine is correlated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and low mood. Problems with sleep are particularly common for those with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, whereas developing good sleep hygiene that allows for 7-8 hours of rest per night is associated with improvements in overall mental health.
3. Set realistic goals: Goals can motivate us to work toward both our daily commitments and our larger ambitions, and achieving them aligns us with a sense of utility, progress and purpose. Poor mental health is often associated with a lack of goal-directed thoughts and behaviours or with setting standards that are too high, both of which can reinforce feelings of failure, helplessness or worthlessness. When we set short-term, achievable goals that draw on our strengths, it instead propels us toward a sense of competency and agency.
4. Nurture close relationships and build a strong support network: Having people in our lives who we trust and who care about us is protective for mental health. In contrast, social isolation is a key risk factor for mental illness, and is also associated with other health problems and increased mortality in the elderly. It’s important to cultivate relationships with those who will listen empathetically, who are supportive, and who we feel comfortable being vulnerable with during tough times. Ideally, those connections could include partners, immediate family and friends, as well as meaningful connections with those in our broader communities.
5. Cultivate and practice a range of healthy coping strategies: Stress has a way of gradually weakening our inner resources and coping skills if we don’t address it early. Practicing healthy ways of coping when we’re faced with minor, daily stresses ensures that those stresses won’t trigger broader mental health problems over time, and it improves resilience in the face of unexpected, major stresses. Some examples of coping strategies include relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation, a daily exercise regime, practicing assertive communication, and a regular check in with a qualified therapist.
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.