I’m one of a number of people around the university currently working with EPSW and the team at the SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre (SWRC) to build a new student wellbeing platform.
The platform will combine wellbeing/mental health assessment with individualised wellbeing recommendations, all from your phone or computer.
The dream is a platform available to all students that helps them develop the psychological skills necessary to manage stress, build wellbeing and increase resilience.
The building process is happening in stages, led by Joep and Matthew from SWRC.
One of those stages took place last Friday. Joep and Matthew presented the results of their ‘needs analysis’ looking at what the wellbeing platform/ program needs to address. The team at SWRC have spent a number of years trying to wrap their heads around the mental health space and have some clear ideas on what we need to do to build wellbeing in individuals.
I was secretly pleased to see that many of their ideas closely align with my own thoughts on self-improvement and mental fitness.
Whilst their ‘needs analysis’ was a formal academic document, many of the ideas contained within it are translatable to the everyday context and provide some important things to think about when one is trying to take charge of their own wellbeing. I thought I’d explore a few of them in this post.
Wellbeing is not just the absence of illness
You can be illness free, but not happy with your life.
Conversely, you might have an illness or disability and be quite satisfied with your life.
I’m not suggesting the two aren’t linked. The presence of illness can severely impact your wellbeing, by impacting on those aspects of life that are important to you. If you value work, but are prevented from working by an illness, you’d likely report significant dissatisfaction with your life.
But illness is not the only factor determining wellbeing. Your relationships, occupation, spirituality, environment, beliefs and experiences all shape your wellbeing, in combination with, but also distinct from your health.
The implications of this are quite profound.
It means you can construct a life worth living, one that you experience as subjectively satisfying, even in the presence of significant illness.
It also means that being objectively healthy is not a guarantee of life satisfaction.
Illness (or absence of illness) should be viewed instead as being part of a range of determinants of wellbeing. One useful way to categorise these determinants is as resources or challenges.
Wellbeing is about the interplay of resources and challenges
Resources include things like money, possessions, positive health, social networks (friends, family), education, employment, a sense of purpose, skills/knowledge, access to services, time. I can think of the resources I have as existing within me (my knowledge, skills, coping strategies, self-belief) as well as outside of me (my home, belongings, money, friends, family). Resources are what I draw on to help me in my life.
Challenges include conflict, ill health, adverse events, loss, failure, disappointment, difficult work, toxic environments or people. Similar to resources, a challenge can be within us (e.g. illness) or external to us (e.g. homelessness). Challenges are an inevitable part of life. Although challenges are primarily experienced as being negative or unpleasant, it is often the confronting of challenges that leads to personal growth.
An individual’s wellbeing will be sustained and potentially increased if their resources > their challenges. If an individual can muster the appropriate resources to deal with the challenges facing them, they will tend to grow over time.
Conversely, an individual’s wellbeing will be threatened if the challenges facing them > their resources. If an individual is exposed to a challenge (or set of challenges) that is beyond their ability to cope, then they will suffer.
The implications of this are that at any point in time, an individual who is seeking to improve the trajectory of their life, could focus on a) decreasing their exposure to challenges and/or b) increasing their resources. Both are valid targets of personal change.
The caveat on this is that some resources and challenges are beyond our control. The ones to focus on are the ones that are realistically modifiable by you.
Because of the unique interplay of resources/challenges in each of our lives, the wellbeing formula for you is likely to be different to me
The unique mix of resources and challenges in your life, compared to mine, means our respective formulas or recipes for wellbeing are likely to be different.
Yes, there are some common elements – money, good quality sleep, good food and regular physical activity are likely to benefit us both – but beyond that, our unique life circumstances mean we probably need to do subtly different things to each build wellbeing.
For example, when it comes to ‘resources’ I might need to focus more on my friendships whilst you might need to focus on completing your degree.
In terms of ‘challenges’, you might be more likely to be dealing with relationship breakups or difficulties, whilst I am more likely to be dealing with illness.
The other thing is that we might have different goals. I might prioritise my work, in which case I should focus on building professional resources. You might prioritise family in which case you might focus on building personal resources.
This means each of us will likely have to do our own self-reflection in order to identify what resources or challenges we need to modify.
Thus I can’t just give you an off-the-shelf solution to your life. I have to instead give you the skills necessary to develop your own solution.
What are those skills then?
I’ve talked a bit about these skills in my Mental Fitness Course.
To me they are the essential skills of self-improvement.
I think they are as follows:
- you have to be able to project what you want your life to be as well as accurately assess how your life is now.
- you need to be able to generate some sensible ideas about how to get from where you are now, to where you want to be. These ideas are likely based on you having accumulated some knowledge from other people, or the internet or books about how people make such improvements.
- you need to have the self-belief that you can make positive changes in your life.
- you need to be able to set goals, experiment with different ways to achieve those goals and monitor your progress towards those goals and change/modify them if needed.
- you need to be able to inhibit or manage strong emotions or impulses that would take you away from those goals.
- you need to be able to practice and learn new skills.
- you need to be able to engage other people to help you achieve your goals.
If you can put these skills into action, you have a powerful basis upon which to make important life changes that enhance your resources and reduce your challenges.
Investing in your wellbeing is also investing in your future capacity to deal with challenges
When you take action to improve your wellbeing in the short-term, you are also investing in your future capacity to deal with future challenges.
For example, If I start regularly exercising in order to lose some weight or help heal an injury, that exercise is also positively impacting on a number of factors that reduce my risk of future illness such as lowered blood pressure, increased cardiovascular strength.
Also, each time we practice making positive lifestyle changes, we increase the likelihood of being able to do this in the future. The lessons around self-discipline you learn when starting a new exercise program, will help you later when you return to study and need to be similarly disciplined.
The key takeaway point here is that building ‘resilience’ to future challenges is actually about practising self-improvement and growth in the present moment.
If you invest in your physical health, you’ll likely benefit your mental health
So far in my thinking about self-improvement, I’ve identified at least 18 areas that you could focus on that are modifiable and have wellbeing gains attached:
- understanding and getting one’s psychological needs met
- forming new habits
- study skills
- mastering emotions
- caring for your body
- thinking effectively
- building positive relationships
- helping others
- self-awareness and understanding
- cognitive enhancement
- developing meaning and purpose
- personal safety
- shaping your environment
- work skills
- financial control
- unwinding and having fun
- presenting yourself
- being creative
This creates a bit of a ‘where the hell do I start?’ kinda reaction.
I’ve indicated in bold where I think most people should start – caring for your body. This includes the standards like diet, exercise and sleep.
I’m confident that all of these yield both physical health and mental health benefits. As for the starting recommendations for each of these areas:
- Diet – Google ‘Mediterranean diet’ – which has been shown to improve both physical and mental health outcomes. There is a lot of misinformation about diet floating around. Unless there are specific medical reasons for you to follow a restricted diet (e.g. low FODMAP for IBS) stick with Mediterranean diet or the updated Australian Dietary guidelines – https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/ – If you are struggling to afford healthy food, consider the Flinders Market – flinders.edu.au/flindersmarket . Also follow the Eating Well at Flinders Crew – https://www.facebook.com/EatingWellAtFlinders/ who are committed to improving the dietary health of students.
- Physical activity – https://bit.ly/2vr65OZ – Australian physical activity guidelines
- Minimum – 150 mins of moderate, 75 mins of vigorous per week (moderate = brisk walking, heavy cleaning, mowing lawn, light riding, casual tennis)
- Ideal – 300 minutes moderate, 150 minutes vigorous (vigorous = hiking, jogging, carrying heavy loads, fast riding, competitive sports)
- Break up periods of sitting as often as possible (e.g. get up and move every 40 mins of sitting time)
- Strengthening activities on at least 2 days every week (i.e. weights, resistance exercises, body weight exercises like pushups)
- Try to embed physical activity into your daily routine – such as walking or riding to uni, using the stairs, getting a standing desk.
- Sleep – https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/ – this site has many fact sheets on multiple sleep topics. But for the average person:
- 7-9 hours per night
- Aim to get regular times – i.e. consistent bedtime and wake time
- Try to relax for an hour before bed
- Reduce light exposure in the hours leading up to bedtime
- On mobile devices enable ‘night mode’ (which reduces blue light)
- Minimise distractions in bed (cue rude jokes)
- Get sunlight during the day, preferably early. An early morning walk takes care of this and adds physical activity to your day.
You are looking for tangible changes in how you think and act
If you want your life to continue as it is, keep doing what you are doing.
If you want to change and grow, you’ll need to make tangible changes to how you think and behave.
These don’t need to be massive changes. In fact, I tend to promote the idea of improving yourself a little piece at a time, by accumulating small changes over time. This is certainly the case if you are trying to modify multiple aspects of your life at the same time. I remember trying to modify my health and my finances and my relationships all at the same time. The combined effort on all of these was exhausting.
Remember that lifestyle changes are usually cumulative. Each change builds on and can magnify the impact of previous changes.
Expect the journey to be non-linear
I’d like to say that all your efforts to build wellbeing will be successful.
Experience tells me that is not the case.
Human growth and improvement tends to be non-linear. It reminds me more of chart of the stock market – long-term improvement with high levels of short and medium term fluctuation.
Unlike this chart though, you don’t have to spend 146 years making an effort 🙂
The project with EPSW and SWRC looks to be a really interesting one. A project from which we can gain insights into how to improve our lives.
I’ll continue to post reflections from the project here on the blog, as it develops.
If you’d like to learn more about the project, contact me – email@example.com