Can gratitude and family increase your well-being? This is the question I will try to answer in this blog post.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have all experienced the relevance of events we otherwise found obvious. We now recognize the importance of family and friends who can support you during these burdensome times. I have already talked about emotional agility in one of my previous blog posts and I have elaborated on why it is so important to practice this skill. One crucial element I forgot to mention was the importance of a supporting network when you have to deal with negative emotions.
Negative emotions have their evolutionary benefits. They can give rise to feelings of sympathy and can make social connections and interaction more easy achievable. Some emotions like sadness do give more rise to social withdrawal and will open opportunities for more introspection. This allows the person to overcome his loss and afterwards, focus even more on his still existing social connections.
Social connections are the main ingredient in evolutionary theories. I will start with a personal story and explain how certain elements in my story can lead to a more profound well-being.
On a particular hot summer day, me and my parents decided to have a little holiday in our own country. We headed toward the beautiful province called “West Flanders” where you find cities like Bruges, Ieper, Oostende. Undoubtedly, places that cannot compete with the true beauty of Ghent. We made a reservation in an old, authentic castle. Little did we know this meant we had to be sleeping in the attic room without any air-conditioning. Without any exaggeration was the estimated room temperature close to 35 degrees Celsius . When you choose an authentic stay for your holiday, you can expect to leave the idea of comfort to your own imagination. Do you even need comfort when you can live like a queen in a castle?
The trip to the restaurant
We had made different plans that ended up being less pleasant because of varied situations. One Friday night, we planned to walk to the restaurant. Sadly, that moment, it was so boiling hot that when we finally arrived, we were sweating like we had just ran a marathon. Legend says, there were puddles of sweat under our feet at arrival. Dehydrated, we turned ourselves towards the bar of the restaurant and we drank their month’s supply of water. The food and the staff were great though. They did not mind our bestial behavior. In the end, we still had a remarkable evening that we will picture for the rest of our lives into our minds.
The second day
The next day, tiredness took over our emotional happiness and balance. We had been trying to sleep in a sauna. Sadly, this attempt failed miserably. The next day the temperatures rose even a little bit more. I must say the sun was very generous that weekend. In an attempt to cool down, we tried to become bushmen and headed towards the woods of Bruges. I must admit the woods are no stranger to me.
In the evening, we went to Bruges, the second most beautiful city of Belgium. Suffering from severe cases of hyperhidrosis, we were disappointed that we choose an expensive restaurant where you have to pay for special water, filtered by rocks. (That was actually another restaurant in Bruges.) Despite all of the issues correlating with the heat exposure, our consumer-like minds loved the high-end restaurant food. We had fun, were being followed by the mask-surveillance (police) and escaped them eventually. I want to end this story with a cliché:
“The circumstances for the weekend may have not been optimal but despite all of that I experienced a high sense of belonging and well-being. There was nothing more or less I could have wished for. There was one overwhelming sense of gratitude that dominated this trip.”
Mental well being and its implications:
What is mental well-being?
Mental well-being can you define as people’s positive evaluations of their lives, which also includes feeling positive emotions, commitment, fulfillment, and a sense meaning. Well-being is something that most people are willing to reach for. In our society well-being has the power to drive us to achieve more. Like I said in my blog post about the ant and the grasshopper, as humans we are more driven to maximize pleasure and minimize struggle.
Why economic growth does not necessarily equal happiness
The problem with the current society is that we focus too heavily on economic improvements and thereby, we forget that economic advancement does not necessarily mean that overall well-being rises. On the contrary, we even see that there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust. We have come to a point in history that in most wealthy nations economic growth is not going to be the solution to most of our problems.
Heightened well-being also works the other way around and supports economic growth. People who feel good will perform better at their jobs, be more productive, and earn on average, higher incomes. People that have high levels of mental well-being tend to be more organizational citizens who will also invest their time to help others.
The importance of measuring well-being
For the future generations, well-being could be an important marker to concentrate on. Now is the moment to shift our focus since there are more and more problems arising like social isolation, loss of jobs, climate change, the evolution of AI, the rise of mental disorders, social injustice, etc. Money will not be able to fix all of our problems.
In the remainder of this blog post, I will go through some scientific proven methods on how you can increase your mental well-being on an individual level. I cannot provide you though with true personalized suggestions. You will need to experience most of the methods through trial and failure. Women for example perceive gratitude journals better than men. Generalizations in this field are thereby tricky. Be critical when you read any of my suggestions and only apply them when you think they can add value in your life or the life of others.
Some methods to achieve well-being:
There are a couple of character traits that are correlated with higher rates of well-being. The biggest correlation exists with extroversion. When you are an introvert, then this does not mean though you will stay unhappy for the rest of your life. As an introvert, you can train yourself to become more of an extrovert in social situations. You can dress up, learn some proper social skills, and expose yourself more frequently to social engagements. In my story, I did barely dress up, was sweating profusely and had to wear a mask which provoked a bad acne outbreak. I am sorry for giving you such a bad example.
Empathy and self-esteem
Other traits correlated with well-being are traits like agreeableness (empathy) and self-esteem. When your older mother is having a wearisome time surviving in next-level hot apocalyptic circumstances, it can be good practice to empathy with her. Empathy is sadly something that is quite difficult to learn. You should actively try to understand the emotions of other people. You should take your time to listen to other people and be willing to offer a helping hand, if necessary. Practice will make perfect in this case.
The last important aspect in achieving more mental well-being, laid out in this section, is spending time with family. In my example, I have unequivocally pointed out that this weekend was impeccable because I spent it with my family. Spending time with people you love and can trust, is literally worth its weight in gold. It can help you to bear the worst circumstances. It will help you fight the hardest conflicts. The battle in my story was that we needed to reach the restaurant before we fainted. In the end, our fight was lucrative.
Conscientiousness also links with mental well-being. This trait will involve a variance of tendencies like: organizational skills, strong work ethics , reliability, planning in advance etc. It basically means you will get more stuff done in your daily life and job. This in fact will, at least in the short term, lead to more contentment. You will feel like you have crushed your daily tasks and have been a productive human being.
When we travelled to Bruges, we had indeed planned our trip. This was maybe not the best decision we could have made. A lot of hotels were empty because of the pandemic. A last-minute choice with air-conditioning would have not been such a bad alternative. That is though not the point I want to make with this story. When we would have not planned our holiday ahead, then there was a higher chance we would have not engaged in this travel. We would have missed the opportunity to travel together and to strengthen our family bonds. In life, there is a place for spontaneity and one for planning. In general though, planning at your work place and in your daily life offers a lot of benefits. Your mental state will thank you later.
A fulfilling job that enables you to get regularly into a flow state will also help to heighten your feelings of well-being. A flow state is the state where we are completely absorbed into the given moment and consequently forget every indication of time or location. We get into a state of hyper-vigilance and pure concentration. A flow state can only occur when the given task is not too difficult but also not too easy and thereby, not stimulating enough. People can typically encounter flow states in their job and hobbies. It is another model of mindfulness as a framework to achieve full presence in the moment.
Being in a restaurant with my family and engaging in different topics, is a situation where I get naturally into a flow state. At such moments, I forget how hot the environment is, how tired I am, what is happening in my surrounding, and what time it is. It does not happen every time I go out to eat but when it happens, I am always dazzled by how cheerful I am at the end of the day.
My best advice would be to regularly visit a good family physician. This has not only been correlated with a longer life span but also with higher rates of intense happiness.
My other advice would be to go out and exercise. During our little holiday we spent a lot of our time walking in the woods. We easily achieved 10,000 steps in one day. Walking outside is one of the easiest forms of exercise you can engage in. Walking can also be socially interactive, which links us back to the first point we discussed. When you have some friends over at your house, then maybe, it is a good idea to take them out for a walk instead of serving them more alcohol.
There is only one rule of thumb you should know and that is: “People with mental disorders have a harder time than other people to be content”. There can be a solution if they receive proper treatment through therapy and/or medication. Luckily, we are in a society where mental disorders are not overly stigmatized anymore.
The implications of a mental disorder
When I had my eating disorder, I still remember the stressful family holidays. We always ended up having serious discussions about the restaurant we were going to eat at. Because of my disordered mind, I wanted to choose the safest option. Then I would not lose the obsessive control over my caloric intake. When we were in the restaurant, I would always be freaked out about the limited amount of eating disorder-friendly options there were. It almost felt like restaurants were engaging in some conspiracy theory against people with eating disorders. I would choose the safest option but because my anxiety took over, my appetite also decreased. Result was that I could not finish my plate. My dad became very frustrated and the dinner table was generally a place for mental and emotional fights.
I choose this story of our little holiday to remind me that engaging in social activities without any overarching anxiety is what makes me so much happier. When I still had a mental disorder, I was almost disabled to find any happiness. I created a rigid environment where happiness was no option.
Treating the mental disorder is not an option. It is a necessity.
Philosophy or religion:
People who believe in something greater than themselves and who experience a sense of transcendence, tend to be happier, overall. It makes sense though. When you have a philosophy or religion, you will have an easier time finding your purpose or sense of life and you will find an easier time connecting with others.
If you do not know your meaning, you can start here.
Special thanks to gratitude and family:
Importance of gratitude
The main overarching theme of my story was gratitude. Gratitude that I could spend time with my family, engage in luxurious activities like sleeping in a hotel, and going out for dinner. I had the ultimate luxury to spend an entire weekend with two of the loveliest people on this planet. Gratitude is the emotional response we experience when we receive benefits. These can be benefits from material objects but these can also be transcendental (or relational) benefits like the appreciation of nature. Gratitude correlates with well-being and will help you to become more social. It can also increase your self-efficacy and self-worth.
Did you know that gratitude can easily be trained by a method that has been proven in scientific studies? They call this method a gratitude journal.
Writing can help you to deal more efficiently with bad feelings. Studies have found that while talking about one’s problems does not help one to feel better, writing on the other hand does seem to have a positive effect.
Couple of remarks
In different studies they found that gratitude journals were associated with consistent increases in happiness. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when you want to start a gratitude journal:
- It will not work for everyone. Men will typically experience less benefit of journaling in studies.
- It will not work if it annoys you or if you do not believe in it. If journaling does not produce a positive change, then this is the wrong strategy for you.
- If you think about the subtraction of positive events, then this can produce an even bigger boost in mental happiness levels. For example, instead of only being grateful of coffee, try to imagine a world where coffee does not exist. You will feel the next morning so much happier when you drink your delicious cup of black (only real option) coffee.
- Think about what caused these good events. Do not stop at just listing to these events. Be aware of what caused you to experience them in the first place. Personally, I am able to enjoy family time more intensely because I recovered from my mental disorder. A lot of gratitude stems from the fact that I chose for recovery!
We have come to a social situation where we cannot measure everything on an economical scale. Social well-being is an important topic that should not be longer ignored. In this blog post, I discussed a couple of ways you could heighten your own well-being. In short, this comes down to strengthening your social relationships, being more productive, prioritizing both physical and mental health, living with a sense of purpose, and expressing gratitude.
I want to give a special thanks to my parents. They inspired me to start my journey of recovery. Without them this blog would have never existed.
Please share in the comments who are the people in your life you want to give a special thanks to?