Mental illness has long been a topic of study, especially for clinicians who are attempting to treat ill patients. Emotional (or mental, or psychological) well-being, on the other hand, has only become an area of study in more recent times, under the name of Positive Psychology.
According to positive psychologists there are two fundamental ways people achieve mental well-being.
- The hedonic approach is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
- The eudaimonic approach focuses on meaning and self-fulfilment, and it defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning.
The difference between the two can be explained by the example of parenthood. Surveys have shown that adults who chose not to have children are happier than adults who have children. In this case happiness is of the hedonic variety. However, there are obviously deeper, more subtle satisfactions from having children or humanity would quickly become extinct! Whilst parenthood is often difficult, even painful at times, it provides benefits that add to mental well-being such as loving relationships and a sense belonging, as well as intrinsic satisfactions such as purpose and achievement.
Similarly, long-distance runners are prepared to go through significant physical pain and mental anguish to achieve their goals which provides them well-being through meaning and achievement.
Emotional well-being for sustainability
This distinction between the hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to emotional well-being also sheds light on the best path to sustainability as well. The hedonic path is essentially short-term and short-sighted, even selfish. Whilst all people need some hedonic well-being in their lives, in the form of positive emotion, constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain will tend to lead to profligacy and waste. Since it is selfish and irresponsible it is unsustainable.
In contrast, the eudaimonic approach is much more likely to be sustainable. With good relationships, positive goals and a sense of meaning providing purpose (rather than just passive consumption) the eudaimonic approach fosters a long term view and responsibility for others as well as the self.
The positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish outlined five aspects to mental well-being:
For us to experience well-being, we need positive emotion in our lives. Any positive emotion such as peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, or love falls into this category. The point is that it’s really important to enjoy yourself in the present, as long as the other aspects of well-being are in place.
When we’re truly engaged in what we are doing we experience a state of flow: time seems to stop, we lose our sense of self, and we concentrate intensely on the present. The more we experience this type of engagement, the more likely we are to experience well-being.
Humans are social creatures and good relationships are core to our well-being. Usually, people who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not.
Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. No matter what it is, we all need meaning in our lives to have a sense of well-being.
Many of us strive to better ourselves in some way, whether we’re seeking to master a skill, achieve a valuable goal, or win in some competitive event. As such, accomplishment is another important thing that contributes to our ability to flourish.
From Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin E. P. Seligman. Published by Free Press, 2011.
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