This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and Barrister James Pereira QC discuss the meaning of well-being and how to be well.
Cast your mind back to your English lessons at primary school. Among the core basic lessons that were given about language, such as the differences between vowels and consonants, or when to use capital letters, we were taught the difference between verbs, nouns and adjectives. Verbs are doing words; nouns are things; adjectives are used to describe things. Often we can choose different ways to describe the same thing, and even subtle differences in the particular words we use have important effects on how we view the world.
Well-being v being well
Take the notion of well-being. Expressing it as a noun implies that it is something we can hold, or if we do not have it, we can go out and get it from the local store or borrow some from a friend. “I’ll have half a dozen eggs and a couple of bags of well-being please”.
But turn it around and express it differently – “being well” – and suddenly it becomes something far more personal, implying individual effort and continued dedication, and a sense that it may come and go depending on our own circumstances. Well-being is not alone in this linguistic transformation. People are no longer mindful. Instead, they practice mindfulness.
In our experience well-being is best thought of as an expression of an activity – “being well”. It requires us to take positive steps and to learn new ways of being, and its continuation within us necessitates on-going practice. In this way we come to see our well-being as a matter of personal responsibility and individual choice, created by our own efforts rather than supplied ready-made by others, who we can blame if what they have supplied does not work for us or does not last as long as we would like.
How do we know if we are well?
But what is well-being – or putting it another way, how do we know if we are being well?
There are a number of different dimensions to being well, and below we discuss some of the most important ones and give some tips on how to achieve them.
Our mental health can be thought of as how we feel. Happiness, contentment, confidence, our ability to be present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or feeling anxious about the future are all indicators of sound mental health. Knowing ourselves, how we tend to respond in different circumstances, and what events tend to trigger unwanted reactions within us, is another aspect of good mental health. Through knowing ourselves better, we are better able to self-regulate and ultimately change the way we react to circumstances that affect us.
Mental resilience – the ability to handle and adapt to adverse circumstances without undue stress or depletion of your mental resources – is another key touchstone of good mental health. Consider your approach to failure. Many lawyers tend to be perfectionists who become anxious worrying about failure before a task is complete, or, having completed it, they are hypercritical of their work and feel a sense of failure when measured against their own exacting and ultimately unobtainable standards. By contrast, those with sound mental health will consider whether they have done as well as could be expected in the particular circumstances, and are able to overcome and learn from set-backs while maintaining a positive outlook. We discussed the fear of failure in an earlier article.
How can we cultivate good mental health? Research suggests the following to be among the best ways to achieve mental well-being:
- Be mindful – mindfulness exercises such as meditation, yoga and Bothmer exercises will support you in developing greater self-awareness in the present moment. This enables people to self-regulate their feelings and deal positively and constructively with circumstances rather than being overwhelmed by them.
- Develop mental agility – mental agility has been described by psychologist Linda Graham as “the ability to pause, step back, reflect, shift perspectives, create options and choose wisely.” We can do this by the practice of de-centering emotions by labelling them with words, rather than simply experiencing them as feelings. This activates the thinking parts of our brains and helps us become more objective in observing what is actually happening, thus enabling us to have positive responses to circumstances rather than unthinking reactions.
- Cultivate compassion – research cited by UC Berkeley found that cultivating compassion – both compassion for the self and compassion for others – creates positive emotions, increases co-operation and collaboration and promotes positive relationships. These boost well-being and reduce mental stress.
- Work on yourself – all of us carry with us learnt patterns of behavior that to some extent limit our ability to genuine choose how we respond to particular circumstances. These patterns of behavior can also limit our ability to benefit from practices such as mindfulness, or to develop other skills such as mental agility and greater compassion. If that is the case, then deeper personal work may be called for, involving the support of an appropriate coach or other professional. Our earlier article https://www.thelawyer.com/issues/online-september-2016/loving-legal-life-challenge-beliefs/ discusses the importance of challenging our existing beliefs and patterns of behavior.
It is an irony of the modern world that the so-called health service and health care industry deals with sick people, not healthy people. Physical health is a matter of personal responsibility. So-called health care professionals tend to become involved in our physical health only once we have lost it.
We intuitively know the signs of poor physical health, although we often become de-sensitised to them because we accept a degree of physical deterioration under the notion of “the way things are”. Yet our bodies are the carriers of physical, emotional and mental stress. We ignore the signs of poor physical health at out peril.
Common physical signs of stress include the following: back ache, tightness in the shoulders and neck, headaches, poor sleep, being overweight, irritable bowel syndrome, binge eating or increased sugar intake, high blood pressure, and regular seemingly unavoidable consumption of intoxicants such as coffee, alcohol or other drugs.
Physical well-being can be significantly improved over time by a few simple steps. These include:
- Get regular, adequate sleep: we discussed the benefits of a good night’s sleep and how to get it in our December article
- Take regular exercise: current NHS guidance advises adults between the ages of 19 and 64 that about two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity per week (such as cycling or fast walking) and at least two or more days a week of strength exercises using all the major muscle groups of the body is appropriate to stay healthy.
- Eat well and hydrate properly: we are what we eat. Get into the habit of good nutrition. We discussed the benefits of good nutrition and hydration in an earlier article.
The quality of your relationships
Healthy relationships in all spheres of your life are a good sign that you are well. Conversely, strained or erratic relationships with others, or an inability to form intimate and lasting bonds, is often a sign that something is amiss.
As we have previously written, research carried out by Harvard University has shown that the most important factor in determining people’s well being over the course of their lives is the state of their relationships. Healthy relationships make us happy and help us avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as supporting us through difficult times.
Building good relationships requires us to look both within and outside ourselves in order to develop awareness of self and awareness of the other. Awareness of self helps us to ensure that our relationships with others are based on a dynamic which is in our own interests and that will support and strengthen us to be our best selves. Self-awareness also ensures that we are alive to the effect that our behaviour can have on others. Awareness of the other enables us to build rapport and develop empathy, which are essential for building trust and developing intimacy with others.
So take time to invest in your professional and social relationships, remembering that all relationships go through happy and difficult times just as life ebbs and flows. It is often by making an effort in the difficult times that the closest bonds are formed.
Having meaning, purpose and authenticity
Think of something you do that you are passionate about. When you are engaged in that activity, you feel joyful, happy and “alive”. Often our passions and abilities seem to go hand-in-hand: we tend to become very good at things that we enjoy doing, and they then become effortless. There is much truth in the old saying, “Time flies when you are having fun.” Many people feel this way about certain past times and hobbies, others receive the same positive feelings from charitable or voluntary work.
But how many people feel this way about their day jobs? How many people are driven to work out of the positive energy of genuine passion and enjoyment, rather than the negative energy of obligation, insecurity or worry?
Real and lasting well-being can be achieved when our work holds a meaning for us which aligns with our genuine sense of purpose; when it is attuned with our authentic selves. By contrast, time spent on work which is out of step with our values or sense of purpose lacks interest and is demotivating. It causes resentment, stress and frustration. The mid-life crisis reflects this phenomenon.
For some people, meaning and purpose in life is found after a deep trauma such as serious illness or the death of a loved one. For others it comes about through deep introspection. Many never find it at all. We will be addressing this important topic in a future article.
By taking active steps to improve our mental and physical health, and the quality of our relationships, and by living authentically and with purpose, we can greatly enhance our lives with positive energy, joy and happiness. But remember, being well involves personal effort and responsibility. As with many aspects of life, we can only expect to get as much out of it as we put it.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles.