Are you feeling more stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or even depressed lately?  If you are, you are not alone.  53% of adults in the United States report that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to stress and worry as a result of this current pandemic.  As the pandemic wears on, isolation, job loss or job insecurity, and other such factors are only predicted to worsen the toll on our overall mental health and well-being.  Focusing on nourishing our personal well-being during this time is paramount to maintaining our mental health.

When I talk about personal well-being, I am not merely referring to the state of feeling happy, as happiness can be a fleeting emotional state.  Well-being refers to an overall feeling of life satisfaction.  How satisfied do we feel with ourselves and our lives?

Over the  past several years,  I have been on a mission to learn as much as I possibly can about what factors contribute to our feeling of well-being.  I enrolled in formal long-term training to learn more about the research behind the theories of positive psychology and the elements that make up our personal well-being. I even became certified by the board of medical examiners as a wellness professional to officially apply what I learned in the work I do with leaders. What became crystal clear to me through this study is that there is compelling research that our own well-being influences everything else in our lives.  It also can be influenced by our own mindsets and attitudes, and by the momentary choices we make about what to focus on.

According to Martin Seligman, often referred to as the “father” of positive psychology and well-being theory, there are five factors that contribute to our sense of well-being.  I call them our well-being muscles.  They are:
1.  Fostering positive emotions:  In other words, doing constructive things that make us feel good.
2.  Being fully engaged: Doing something that puts us in a flow state and has us fully engaged and engrossed in it, like playing music, gardening, creative pursuits, and the like.
3.  Having a sense of meaning: Belonging to and/or serving something bigger than oneself; having a sense of purpose.  (Examples:  religious affiliation, working for a cause, providing a service that has a positive impact on others, etc.)
4. Building positive relationships: Having meaningful connections with others and positive experiences together  through that connection.
5.  Pursuing achievement:  Feeling a sense of accomplishment (Examples: reaching a goal you set for yourself, running a race, writing a book, obtaining a degree, etc.)

In order to achieve a greater sense of personal well-being, we can focus on selecting activities and practices in each of these areas that will give us a sense of satisfaction even in the most difficult of times. Being intentional about focusing on each of these areas can strengthen our well-being muscles and promote a greater sense of overall satisfaction, regardless of the circumstance we find ourselves in.

In this post,  I’d like to offer you one exercise you can practice to build the first well-being muscle: fostering positive emotions.  We need all the positive emotions we can get right now, and this simple exercise can help foster positive feelings that contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

To begin this, think for a moment about how often you focus on and ruminate about the negative things in your life and environment. We spend a lot of time focusing on what is wrong and what is bad– probably so we can avoid making a mistake or encountering something bad in the future.   We must learn to be less ruled by the primitive part of our brains that prepared us for survival in the jungle, usually by flashing emotional danger signs in our brains as we came around every corner.  The tendency to focus on the negative has a compelling adverse impact on our sense of well-being.

Fostering Positive Emotions Well-Being Exercise: 
Every night before you go to sleep for the next week, write down three things that went well today and WHY they went well.  It is important that you actually physically write it down so that you have a record of the week.  You can pick simple things (I made my favorite meal and my family enjoyed it) so don’t think too hard about or judge your answers.
Next to each of these positive events, write down  WHY the positive event happened.    For example, if you wrote down the above about making your favorite meal and that your family enjoyed it, you might write “because it was made with love and we all sat down together to eat.”  (Exercise adapted from the book “Flourish”, by Martin Seligman)

The key is not to overthink this but to do this religiously for the next week right before you go to bed.  You will start to build the “fostering positive emotions” muscle that contributes to well-being, rather than defaulting to negative thinking.  This can really help with negative ruminating, depression, and stress.

While there is much more to work on when it comes to our well-being, I hope you’ll use this positive emotions exercise as a good start to begin building your personal well-being muscles during these stressful times.  While we cannot always control our circumstances, we can control our mindsets and our responses to those circumstances.  Over time, we can learn to build personal well-being muscles that are strong and independent of circumstance.