Welcome to 2021 everyone!
This year on the Student Health and Wellbeing Blog, I really want to focus on digging into the published research on health, wellbeing and productivity and sharing with you practical ideas for enhancing your own wellbeing and productivity.
I know that you don’t have the time to be reading and absorbing that literature yourself, but you stand to gain from many of the insights from it. That is where I come in. If I can look through the literature for you, and extract from it things I reckon are helpful, that saves you time and effort, but gives me a task I actually really enjoy. You see, I spend my life teaching and writing about wellbeing, so the more I can learn about it, the better I can do my job. Sounds like a win-win!
Kicking off this year is an article I found late last year (2020 – we shall never speak of it again) discussing 4 trainable dimensions of wellbeing. The paper titled “The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing” by Dahl, Wilson-Mendenhall and Davidson is a great paper for teachers (and students) of wellbeing research. Why? Because it attempts to organise an incredibly large body of wellbeing research in a way that makes it easier for someone who is interested in improving their wellbeing to work out what they should be doing.
When we talk about ‘wellbeing’, we are talking (mostly) about the subjective sense that an individual has that their life is meaningful, that they are connected to others, that they experience positive emotion and they feel capable and competent. Wellbeing is associated with many desirable outcomes: good physical health, good mental health, rewarding work, strong social connections and life satisfaction. Thus building wellbeing is of interest to many.
The authors propose that someone looking to build wellbeing should focus on 4 dimensions: awareness, connection, insight and purpose, each dimension reflecting an important part of the process of building wellbeing and involving sets of skills that a person can develop with training.
This is a more nuanced and useful perspective than what we often see in the general wellbeing space. Let me explain.
Many articles you read about how to be happier or more productive focus on ‘what’ you should do: meditate, manage your time, challenge your thoughts, do yoga, eat well, etc. I’m as guilty as the next person for writing such articles. In fact, my self-care guide is really just a massive list of ‘what’ to do.
Such articles however don’t always explain well ‘why’ you should engage in those activities. For example, what is it about meditation that is helpful? What does challenging your thoughts achieve?
Rather than putting wellbeing activities at the forefront, the authors of this article focus on what is it you should be trying to grow when picking wellbeing activities. This provides a really useful perspective on the core ingredients of wellbeing and what are the most important capacities an individual should develop to increase their wellbeing.
The authors posit that individuals should be working towards developing 4 core capacities: awareness, connection, insight and purpose
Awareness is the ability to direct and sustain one’s attention towards a task or person or internal state (emotion, sensation, thought memory).
Focused attention/awareness tends to be both subjectively a positive experience (compared with distractedness) but also helps us get things done. You know from experience the difference in how it feels to be focused on an assignment and making good progress, versus being unable to focus and persistently distracted. One makes you feel competent and gets the job done. The other leaves you feeling dejected and handing the assignment in late.
Given we spend up to 50% of our life in a state of distraction, there is room for improvement for most of us in our ability to pay attention and focus our awareness.
Good news is that we can train awareness in a number of ways. Mindfulness meditation teaches people to become aware of their conscious experience (the constant flow of thoughts, feelings and sensory experiences) and to sustain that awareness for increasing lengths of time. Time management and organisation methods (e.g. using a pomodoro timer) train us to direct and sustain our attention on our work, whilst disengaging from distractors. It is why such methods are taught to students to help you develop your capacity for focused attention on difficult and challenging intellectual work.
As a bonus, individuals who learn to focus their awareness and attention also tend to get better at regulating their emotional experience. For example, experienced meditators can learn to be less reactive to difficult or unpleasant thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories.
As a second bonus, focused awareness and attention can also help you socially. Attending closely to the people you are interacting with and what they are saying will make you a better listener and better understand what others are experiencing and thinking.
Connection is the subjective sense of caring for and being connected with others. Testament to the importance of connection, social relationships are one of the strongest predictors of health and help buffer us against stress and the inevitable setbacks of life.
When we feel connected to others we are more likely to have better interactions with people (including those who differ from us in terms of their beliefs), develop supportive relationships, and do nice things for people (and in turn have them do nice things for us). We will experience a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation for the people in our lives.
Now there is no escaping that building high quality relationships involves practical stuff like opportunities to meet people, good listening skills and good social skills.
But connection involves (at least partly) the mindset we bring to our interactions with other people. Namely, a desire and efforts to focus on shared characteristics, positive qualities and the helpful behaviours of others. This doesn’t mean excusing other people’s bad behaviour, but it does mean seeking out points of connection, rather than difference when interacting with others.
Training a sense of connection can be done separate from just interacting with other people. For example, kindness and compassion focused meditations help amplify positive feelings and intentions towards others. When supporting those who are lonely, part of the process involves getting them to attend to their internal experience and try to identify feelings of threat or avoidance and whether negative evaluations of others are hampering efforts to engage positively with people.
As our attitudes towards others shifts, so does our behaviour. We are more likely to do nice things for people, to go out of our way to help others, which then often leads to reciprocal positive acts from others. Connections breeds further connection.
Insight is the understanding we have about how our emotions, thoughts, beliefs and experiences have shaped and continue to shape our sense of the world and our sense of self.
It is about coming to understand one’s quirks, personality, desires, triggers, likes/dislikes and how these all interact into making us the person we are.
When we have a good understanding of the psychological processes that make us who we are, we can learn to respond differently when it is needed or identify pathways for personal change.
The thing is, none of us are perfect and we have all at least a few maladaptive ways of being in the world, of coping with the things that happen to us. As we gain insight into these we become more accepting of ourselves but also better informed on how to grow.
Psychotherapy/counselling is a common place for individuals (or sometimes couples or groups) to engage in self-enquiry, guided by someone who can help us identify and challenge our maladaptive beliefs and behaviours. Having a guide can help us not fall into common self-enquiry traps like rumination, where we tend to go around in circles having the same thoughts.
Another common place for individuals to develop insight is meditation practice, particularly those types of meditation that invite the individual to contemplate the ‘self’ leading to people developing a different relationship to their thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
Having a sense of purpose is having a sense of clarity about one’s goals, aims and values, but also the sense that you can (with effort) embody these in the way you live your life.
For a student this might look like:
- The goal of getting a degree
- The aim of using that degree to getting a good job and supporting one’s family
- The desire to be a good student by allocating appropriate time to study and learning
- A willingness to take advantage of work experience opportunities when they present
Having a sense of purpose gives our life meaning and this is associated with improved physical and mental health. Having a sense of purpose also helps keep us focused when setbacks happen or we go through difficult times.
Purpose based around community, contribution and connection tends to lead to more reliable positive wellbeing impacts than purpose based around power or financial gain. This doesn’t mean neglecting your own needs in the process, but a recognition that power or financial gain will likely only provide wellbeing benefits if they open up further opportunities to make a contribution to the community in which you live and/or the people you love.
So if you are feeling ‘purposeless’ what do you do?
Models of psychotherapy like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) have value and goal oriented exercises that help you clarify the life you want to lead. A good book to start your ACT journey is the Happiness Trap.
Exercises like Best Possible Self ask you to imagine the ideal future and can give you insights into what is important to you.
Values focused exercises help you think about the person you want to be and identify the characteristics you most want to project to the world.
For those worried that their ‘purpose’ hasn’t presented itself yet, don’t worry. Purpose grows as you experience more of the world. My sense of purpose was relatively immature when I was younger (in my 20’s), but has got more refined over time. The important thing is to keep striving to make progress on the task in front of you. As you make progress, you learn more about yourself (insight), you improve your connections to others and you gain clarity about the meaning of your life.
This article suggests engaging in activities that foster greater awareness, connection, insight and sense of purpose are your best-bet in terms of improving your overall wellbeing.
This is a good filter to use when thinking about how to allocate the limited time you have each day. Pick those activities you think will have the greatest impact on these 4 dimensions.
Reflecting on these 4 dimensions might also encourage you to engage in activities you hadn’t thought were relevant. For example, lots of people think that psychotherapy/counselling is only something you do when things are going badly. But psychotherapy and counselling can be used proactively to build skills in areas such as the 4 described.
Finally, articles such as this one are important reminders that we can train these aspects of our lives. If you struggle in one of these areas, there is good reason to believe that you can make improvements.
Benefits of reading the full article
I’ve tried to provide a plain language description of some of the key ideas from the article, but there is value in reading it yourself if you have the time and interest.
Things that I think you’d get from reading the full article:
- A better understanding of the range of positive outcomes of training in these 4 areas
- Access to a list of interventions that the authors recommend for each of the 4 areas
- An overview of some of the brain science behind these ideas. For example, where in the brain are awareness, connection, insight and purpose manifested?