By Larry M. Berkelhammer, PhD
How might you define “wellbeing”? Through my studies, my psychotherapy practice, and my personal experience, I have come to see wellbeing as a state of being that results from healthy, sustainable personality characteristics that are associated with health, happiness, and flourishing in life.
Wellbeing takes place at the level of thought and feeling. Not surprisingly, pleasant thoughts create pleasant emotional states and unpleasant thoughts create unpleasant ones. The reverse is also true: when we experience unpleasant emotional states, the brain is more likely to generate unpleasant thoughts—and a self-perpetuating cycle takes place. This has important implications in terms of wellbeing because unpleasant thoughts and feelings, if experienced chronically, are at odds with wellbeing and are physiologically harmful. They create emotional distress, which generates physiological stress, and chronic physiological stress has been conclusively shown to contribute to disease. One of the most effective ways to increase wellbeing is to learn to think in healthier ways.
We all have unpleasant (unhealthy) mind states from time to time. When they are fleeting, we can fully recover from them without any long-term adverse effects. But chronic anger, frustration, or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness render the state of wellbeing unlikely.
Examples of unhealthy thoughts include grudges, resentment, animosity, and bitterness. These states of mind create emotional distress and its associated physiological stress, and these are patterns that make it impossible to achieve wellbeing. For this reason—not to mention the fact that such mind states create interpersonal hostility—it is important to find a way to disentangle from such unhealthy thinking.
There are several longstanding methods for working with unhealthy thoughts: replacing unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones is one of them; “cognitive restructuring,” which involves coming up with evidence to dispute such thoughts, is another. Paradoxically, however, when we try to substitute our disagreeable thoughts with pleasant ones, or argue our thoughts into submission by proving them wrong, this can result in an even more intense experience of the very thoughts we’re trying to shake.
Mindfulness practice is a proven method for working with unhealthy thoughts. In mindfulness practice, instead of denying or resisting our inner experience, we make peace with all of our thoughts and feelings. And we learn to recognize our thoughts as nothing more than insubstantial and fleeting creations of the typically active human brain.
When we can learn to observe our thoughts in this way—something everyone has the power to achieve to some degree of effectiveness if they commit to consistent practice over time—our thoughts lose their power to “hook” us emotionally, and we can avoid emotional distress before it eventuates into physiological stress or into hostile or other unhealthy behaviors. People who experience high levels of wellbeing are skilled at taking their thoughts lightly in this way.
Wellbeing is not as mysterious as it may seem, but it can be elusive if we don’t consciously cultivate the healthy personality traits that support the state of wellbeing. Fortunately, there is nothing to stop us from doing so; attention to our thoughts and feelings is the key.