What do we mean by “well-being?”
Dr. Martin Seligman, the positive psychology guru at the University of Pennsylvania, uses this term instead of “happiness,” as it’s a more accurate and less charged term describing the human state of relative peace and contentment to which most of us aspire. Imbedded in the term is self-compassion as well as both acceptance of self and the process of life as it is, warts and all. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rarer, more dramatic state that comes in bursts but generally doesn’t last. As we all know, a constant state of happiness is an unattainable—and unrealistic—goal. The human condition comes with certain angst, constant challenges and hurdles to overcome—which generally translate into painful opportunities for growth. We might be happy for brief periods of time, but life always comes back at us with a certain vengeance. With the world changing at such a heady speed, it seems that we can scarcely hold our footing.
Well-being, though, is possible.
Seligman uses the acronym “PERMA” to describe what he considers the five aspects of well-being: positive outlook, engagement, relationship, meaning and accomplishment.
It’s a solid prescription. However, we can make it even simpler—and we can work toward these realistic goals outside the therapist’s office. I believe that we can attain a pretty consistent sense of well-being through three initiatives:
Exercise—for body and brain
It sounds easy. And it is, after a fashion.
Exercise, to start, should not be a dreaded obligation. It can be as easy and enjoyable as walking, provided you do it most days, beginning with a good 20 minutes. From there, you can increase the time/distance to a comfortable, sustainable length. All you need is a good pair of athletic shoes. While walking on a treadmill is fine in inclement weather, I would argue that it’s healthier to walk outdoors—when you can soak up much-needed Vitamin D, enjoy some beautiful, natural scenery and fraternize with neighbors. I walk mornings with my dog and often my husband, and it’s our golden time to hash things out. Since we’re not face-to-face, which is by definition more potentially confrontational, it’s a less stressful way to discuss important family and career matters, make plans and simply spend deliberate time together. For those who like dogs, a dog is an excellent, built-in fitness partner—a good argument for getting a furry companion. We live in a hilly, active dog neighborhood and often join our dog group up at the park on weekends for a group constitutional. This satisfies both exercise and social connection needs.
Beyond walking, the possibilities are endless: running, biking, yoga, Pilates, weights and resistance training, swimming, martial arts, rock-climbing…the list goes on. But I consider walking the foundation, regardless of whatever else you do. The point is to move your body in a powerful way every day. Exercise relieves stress, releases toxins, clears the head, speeds up metabolism and fosters self-esteem. It gets you out in the world. It’s a tangible accomplishment, on a regular basis. And when you are more fit, you have a tendency to eat in a healthier manner. If you walk three miles, or swim a mile, you probably don’t want to sabotage that effort with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. By the same token, if you are well-exercised, you tend to stay properly hydrated and to sleep well.
Exercise is also good for the brain, and it also applies to the brain. Obviously, there are many ways to stimulate our brains: reading, writing, learning a language, doing something artistic or mathematical, playing bridge or other cognitively challenging games, taking a class, taking up a hobby out of our comfort zone. The point is not to spend too much time vegetating in front of the TV or computer, and getting sidetracked with social media.
Family and social connection are critical, and people are different in how much connection or intimacy they want and require. But, as both common sense and neuroscience bear out, human fellowship is a basic psychological and spiritual need. We are literally “wired to connect” and we do not thrive in isolation. Some people have a number of friends and acquaintances, with their family as their core, while others prefer deeper one-on-one relationships. Significant others—romantic relationships—are part of this need. However, this may not be in the cards for everyone all the time; good friendships and even pets can help fill this void. But being alone, with only virtual connection to others, is not enough.
Making good friends takes some effort. Unless you live in your home town, complete with family and lifelong friends, you must take various initiatives to establish strong friendships. Finding a common-interest group (book group, chess or bridge club, Spanish conversation, politics, hiking, dancing, etc.), joining a religious/spiritual entity or volunteering are all helpful, so long as the experience provides repeated exposure to the same group of people. And speaking of brain exercise, camaraderie helps to keep our brains engaged. Countless studies have shown that people who are isolated are not as vital and do not live as long as those who are connected.
Finally, purpose. Cultivating a sense of purpose is often more critical after the first half of life, when we’re back to ourselves again. As Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis says, we spend the first half of our lives setting up our lives—getting an education, establishing a career, creating a family—and have the bandwidth for little else. While there is some sense of purpose in building the infrastructure of our lives, we are so busy during those earlier years that more deliberate and autonomous purpose is generally off the table. If we’re lucky, we have a job that contains purpose: teachers, nurses, doctors, certain nonprofits, etc. But many of us go to work to pay the bills. In the second half of our lives, according to Hollis, author of Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, we have more time and psychic space to listen for “the soul knocking on the door.” The old existential question, “Why am I here?” takes on a deeper urgency. However, I believe we all need a sense of purpose throughout our lives, whether it be school, career, parenthood, artistic or spiritual pursuits. The point is to invest deeply in something resonant, especially in an initiative that provides an opportunity for transcendence—for rising above ourselves for a greater mission.
In short, challenge your body and brain, make and cherish friends and family, and contribute something of yourself to the cosmos!