By Dr. Irma Campos, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Leadership Coach/Consultant
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a designation.” -Dr. Carl R. Rogers, Humanistic Psychologist
Psychological wellbeing (PWB) can be defined as a multidimensional construct of positive human functioning that includes high levels of life purpose, self-acceptance, personal growth, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relationships (Ryff & Singer, 2008). The concept dates as far back to 350 BCE, as Aristotle wrote about the concept in Nichomachean Ethics (Ryff & Singer, 2008). Supported by empirical research, PWB is a separate construct from psychological distress, with small to moderate correlations found between psychological distress and PWB (Ryff et al., 2006). This means that although someone’s negative mental health symptoms may change (e.g., anxiety, depression symptomatology), it does not inherently mean dimensions of PWB will inversely change as well. Many psychologists, including those from my field of study in Counseling Psychology, have called for practitioners and researchers to consider the importance of enhancing PWB as part of a comprehensive mental and physical health treatment approach. Indeed, Counseling Psychologists have a history of assessing, researching, and encouraging the application of individual and cultural strengths and assets. I can attest to the power of developing dimensions of PWB after seeing thousands of clients over the course of my work. Those who focused on managing negative mental health symptoms simultaneously with improving positive psychological functioning faired the best in different domains of their lives. A skilled psychologist or therapist will often value the importance of a client’s psychological well-being and will not just treat the “symptoms” or “illness.”
To that end, psychotherapy that enhances PWB (referred to as Wellbeing Therapy) combined with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been associated with higher levels of remission of Generalized Anxiety Disorder relative to only implementing CBT (Fava et al., 2005). Longitudinal studies have found that high levels of psychological well-being can serve as a buffer to negative mental health symptoms (Lamers et al., 2015). Findings from a meta-analysis of 27 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) further supported that wellbeing interventions (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Wellbeing Therapy) were significantly related to increased psychological well-being. Notably, a systematic review of studies found that web-based well-being workplace interventions were significantly associated with increased psychological well-being and work effectiveness (Carolan et al., 2017), underscoring the ability for interventions to influence organizational performance outcomes.
Scientific evidence and clinical experience shed light on the benefits of psychological wellbeing. Specific actions must be implemented, however, for psychological wellbeing to develop over time. Even with the assistance of a trained psychologist or leadership coach/consultant, these actions must be intentionally and recurrently implemented by the client. I’ll review research-based steps that can help to begin developing psychological well-being.
- Enhance your sense of purpose today.
Many individuals may believe that in order to feel a sense of purpose and meaning, they must wait for an environmental change (e.g., job or career, transitional change) to occur. However, relying on external factors may not be the most reliable method to find purpose and meaning, particularly when one’s options are limited or immediate environmental change is not feasible. It is possible to develop a sense of purpose by recognizing how one is making a difference or could make a difference for causes or movements beyond oneself in the here and now. Involvement in causes or movements should align with that sense of what individuals feel they are meant to do in this world. For example, in the workplace, this may include seeking opportunities (e.g., leadership role in an Employee Resource Group for underrepresented individuals) that offer a way to feel connected to something greater. Outside of the workplace, this may look like finding ways to live up to one’s core values and purpose through targeted behavioral actions, such as volunteering, community organizing, or donating.
- Practice radical acceptance of yourself as you are now and not in the future.
Radical acceptance was a term popularized by Dr. Tara Brach, a psychologist and buddhist meditation teacher. It is also a primary theoretical component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Radical acceptance of oneself (not the future, idealized version of the self) allows for less judgment, impulsivity, emotional avoidance, outbursts towards others, and other problematic behaviors. Radical self-acceptance would look like gaining increased awareness without judgment of one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It would also mean valuing oneself as a human being in spite of undesirable thoughts, emotions, or actions. For many individuals struggling with psychological distress, negative thoughts about the self feel inextricably linked to their self-perceptions. There may be internalized blame or shame for certain thoughts, emotions, or actions that subsequently lead to ‘deserving’ a specific outcome. Radical acceptance of oneself today in this moment can release us from the cycle of judgment, shame, and blame.
- Develop and maintain growth-promoting relationships.
As beings that evolved over time through complex socialization processes (e.g., nonverbal and verbal communication, interdependence), developing and maintaining relationships is a human need. The key to psychological well-being specifically, however, is developing positive relationships. I distinguish positive relationships from non-positive relationships based on the degree to which they promote personal and general growth as a person. Relationships require investment of time, energy, and reciprocation, especially to maintain in light of major life events (e.g., having a child) that may drift us apart from those relationships. As our contexts change due to the current pandemic, I would venture to say that growth-promoting relationships are even more necessary as a fundamental human need, as they provide deeply needed emotional support, physical support, hope, guidance and a sense of normalcy. Technology allows for numerous ways to connect in meaningful ways that does not have to include face-to-face interaction.
By beginning to implement these steps as they may best fit you, you will likely begin to experience higher levels of psychological wellbeing and the wonderful benefits that follow.
Carolan S, Harris PR, Cavanagh K. Improving Employee Well-Being and Effectiveness: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Web-Based Psychological Interventions Delivered in the Workplace. J Med Internet Res 2017;19(7):e271
Fava GA, Ruini C, Rafanelli C. Well-being therapy of generalized anxiety disorder. Psychother Psychosom. 2005;74:26–30.
Lamers SM, Westerhof GJ, Glas CA, Bohlmeijer ET. The bidirectional relation between positive mental health and psychopathology in a longitudinal representative panel study. J Posit Psychol. 2015:1–8.
Ryff CD, Dienberg Love G, Urry HL, Muller D, Rosenkranz MA, Friedman EM, et al. Psychological well-being and ill-being: do they have distinct or mirrored biological correlates? Psychother Psychosom. 2006;75(2):85–95.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2006). Best news yet on the six-factor model of well-being. Social Science Research, 35, 1103–1119.
Ryff, C.D. and B.H. Singer. 2008. Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies. 9. 13-39. doi 10.1007/s10902-006-9019-0