By Larry M. Berkelhammer, PhD
Wellbeing refers to healthy, sustainable personality characteristics that are associated with health, happiness, and flourishing. However, health is not a prerequisite for wellbeing, nor is external circumstances. This article describes evidence-based practices that can be adopted in order to cultivate wellbeing. The practices recommended herein mimic the behavior of people who naturally seem to live with a high level of wellbeing. By living the way people with wellbeing live, it is possible for the rest of us to increase wellbeing.
Pleasant thoughts create pleasant emotional states and unpleasant thoughts create unpleasant emotional states. The reverse is also true, in that, when we experience unpleasant emotional states, the brain is more likely to generate unpleasant thoughts.
The reason this is important is because unpleasant thoughts and feelings have harmful physiological effects. Here is how the process works: Unpleasant thoughts create emotional distress, and emotional distress creates physiological stress. Chronic physiological stress contributes to disease.
When these unpleasant mind states are fleeting, we fully recover from them without any long-term adverse effects. However, chronic anger, frustration, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, and most other chronically experienced unpleasant states of mind contribute to illness. In that way, unpleasant thoughts are also unhealthy thoughts.
One of the most effective methods to increase wellbeing is to learn to think in healthier ways. I do not recommend trying to replace unpleasant (unhealthy) thoughts with pleasant ones (thought replacement). There are actually several methods for working with unhealthy thoughts. The most common one is referred to as cognitive restructuring, which involves coming up with evidence to dispute unhealthy thoughts. This is more effective than thought replacement but less effective than mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice is now becoming the most evidence-based method for working with unhealthy thoughts. Mindfulness practice sidesteps the problems that are sometimes encountered in trying to use thought substitution or even thought disputation. In mindfulness practice, instead of denying, resisting, trying to replace or dispute our inner experience, we make peace with all our thoughts and feelings.
Examples of unhealthy thoughts include holding grudges, resentment, animosity, bitterness, hatred, and ill will. These states of mind create emotional distress, which causes physiological stress. For that reason, and the fact that those mind states create interpersonal hostility, it is important to find a way to disentangle from such negative thinking. By learning to view our thoughts as just insubstantial brain secretions, we can avoid the emotional distress before it eventuates to physiological stress, or to hostile or other unhealthy behavior.
We act on our thoughts when we lack the awareness that our thoughts are nothing but insubstantial mental constructs. Mindfulness training provides a path out of cognitive fusion or entanglement. Senior mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield has said: The mind secretes thoughts the way the salivary glands secrete saliva.
Another way to increase wellbeing involves the imagination. It’s easy to imagine how strong, recurrent feelings of guilt, shame, and self-denigration cause emotional distress and physiological stress. For this reason, it is important to learn how to use that same imagination to practice self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance.
Another contributor to wellbeing is the level of connection and belonging we share with others. Closely related to this is a sense that we are contributing to the welfare of not just our family, but to strangers as well. Throughout the day, ask: Does my behavior contribute in any way to the suffering of others or myself? This question serves as a mind-training practice to help us to live in full contact with the present moment, to be fully awake to our impact on those around us, and to live in a healthy, open-hearted state of mind.
Lastly, throughout the day, ask yourself if your behavior is aligned with your personal life values.
– A Mind-Body Medicine researcher living with chronic debilitating medical conditions, Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, now teaches about evidence-based practices to improve life for people living with chronic medical conditions. In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions—Mindfulness-Based Practices for Mastery and Wellbeing is his recently published book about evidence-based practices to improve quality of life for people living with debilitating chronic medical conditions. His non-commercial blog and extensive website provides numerous text articles and videos: larryberkelhammer.com.