How are you? is a very common question we ask each other when we meet. Yet analysing the replies opens a Pandora box of what we really mean when we reply to that question. Typical replies are “I am fine thank you”, “ could be better”, “ I am sick” , “ very busy!” etc etc. Analysis of such replies shows that few say “I am happy”. In order to say this, one needs to have a very high psychological wellbeing which refers to positive mental states, such as happiness or satisfaction.

Psychological wellbeing refers to the extent to which people experience positive emotions and feelings of happiness. This is also referred to as subjective wellbeing however but on its own it is not enough.

To understand this, imagine you are having a picnic in the countryside with your favourite food and drink and good company. For most people that would be very enjoyable for a while but imagine doing it not just for a few hours but forever! That may not be acceptable for many if you really think about it. This is because in order to really feel good, people need to experience purpose and meaning, have control over one’s life and experience positive relationships, in addition to positive emotions in what we are doing.

Having a positive psychological wellbeing is important as it has beneficial effects for many aspects of cognitive functioning, health, and social relationships. Sustainable wellbeing does not require people to feel good all the time.

The experience of painful emotions such as when we are disappointed on a specific outcome, failure or grief, is a normal part of life. Being able to manage such negative or painful emotions is essential for long-term wellbeing. However situations of compromised wellbeing arise when negative emotions are extreme or very long lasting and interfere with a person’s ability to function in daily life.

When we talk about mental health, many associate it with disorders such as depression, but the focus needs to shift more on wellbeing and positive mental health.  This positive perspective is also enshrined in the constitution of the World Health Organisation, where health since 1948 has been defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. In 2001, WHO defined positive mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.  The distinction between disorder and wellbeing is important both to identify the drivers and also the approaches to manage both are different.

Evidence shows that happy people tend to function better in life than unhappy people – they are typically more productive and more socially engaged and tend to have higher incomes. Such people have styles which are more self-enhancing and more enabling than those who score low in subjective wellbeing. Such people also behave in a more confident, optimistic, and generous way in interpersonal situations – this suggests that positive wellbeing, in turn fuels further positive emotions.

It has long been known that negative emotions are related to a higher prevalence of disease.  The famous “Nun Study” showed that the ageing nuns had all written brief autobiographies when they had entered the convent at around age 20 years.  These autobiographies were categorised according to the number of positive statements they contained.  Those nuns who had a lower number of positive statements died on average 9 years sooner than those with higher positive statements.  This finding is particularly remarkable because from their early twenties, the lives of the nuns were as similar as human lives can be; so the difference in survival was not related to their lifestyle or circumstances in the intervening period, but to their positive emotions six decades earlier.

There are various steps one can take to enhance psychological wellbeing. Having a good wellbeing does not mean that you never experience feelings or situations that you find   difficult, however you would have the resilience to cope when times are tougher than usual.  is is all about working to enhance wellbeing rather than saying I am a positive or a negative person. Psychological wellbeing can be enhanced through various means:

1. Connection. The more you connect with the people around you such as your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, the more you enhance your wellbeing. Spend time developing these relationships. Take time to be with your family. Switch off the TV and play a board game with the family or friends. Have lunch with a work colleague. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while.

2. Be active. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life. Adults aged 19 and over should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as fast walking or cycling.

3. Keep learning. When one keeps learning new skills – these can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. Some ideas include starting a cooking course, taking a part time course at University or MCAST, learning to play a musical instrument or starting a hobby you love.

4. Be altruistic. Give to others. Even the smallest act such as a smile, a thank you or a kind word can count. More involving acts such as volunteering at your local community, can improve your psychological wellbeing and help you build new social networks.

5. Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges. 

The science of wellbeing which focuses on what makes people flourish, on human assets rather than defi cits. Advances in understanding the behavioural, biological, and social pathways to wellbeing will benefit individuals, organisations, and society.


© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Dr Charmaine Gauci