#2 What is mental wellbeing? Wow, just WOW

August 14, 2018

In the diagram below, you'll see what I mean by mental wellbeing. Welcome to my wheel of wellbeing (WOW) model (it should more precisely be the wheel of mental wellbeing model, but WOMW is clearly a loser acronym).

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In WOW, I break mental wellbeing into two core components: emotion and cognition. When you ask people the question “What do you want to improve about your mental life?”, practically all responses boil down into these two categories. We want to feel well and we want to do well in our mind.


Emotional wellbeing

Until relatively recently, positive emotions were rarely studied in psychology and neuroscience. To study good feelings, you first need to make people feel them, which can be surprisingly difficult in a scientific lab. Scaring someone is fairly straightforward; show them a picture of a large spider or a clip from a horror film, then sit back and observe all the biological effects of fear manifest themselves. But what do you do to make someone feel happy? You can give them money but then you are only really studying the immediate effects of reward rather than happiness per se, and the pockets in your lab coat will also empty pretty quickly. Many studies instead resort to effects of psychological priming in order to make people happy. This usually involves asking someone to recall a happy event in their life and describe it in as much detail as possible. The act of recalling this authentically happy moment helps them relive it and therefore feel happier in the present moment. This is similar to the method acting that earns many good actors their bread and butter.

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Other studies use boring questionnaires to ask people how they feel at various points in the day. Participants generally read through a list of pre-selected adjectives and indicate to what extent they have been experiencing those emotions in their everyday life. Relying on people’s self report in this way is not particularly reliable, but the method does have the advantage of probing real life events rather than contrived situations in a laboratory. One specific scale used to measure emotions in this way pulls together a list of ten commonly experienced positive emotions: compassion, contentment, gratitude, interest, hope, awe, pride, joy, love, and amusement.

In the left side of the WOW model, I have tried to distill the most commonly experienced positive emotions into three categories. The motivated feelings are those that generate impassioned desires or a drive to act: interest, hope, awe, and pride. The happy feelings are the more immediate emotions of positivity and enjoyment: joy, love, and amusement. The mindful feelings are those that help us appreciate the world, feel calm, and care about others: compassion, contentment, and gratitude. So here are the three central questions in dealing with the emotion side of the WOW model: 1) Motivated: How driven are you?, 2) Happy: How much do you enjoy yourself?, 3) Mindful: How much do you appreciate what you have? I believe these cover the bulk of what we consider or experience as positive emotions in everyday life.


Cognitive fitness

Opposite the emotion side of the WOW model, you’ll find the other half of what we want from a healthy mind: strong cognitive ability. The Hawkings and Einsteins of the world get their fair share of respect thanks to their powerful minds, and while we shouldn’t expect to develop the next theory of relativity, we can certainly aim to improve our own mental productivity. We can also refer to this quality as ‘cognitive fitness’; how well does our mind perform in analyzing and understanding the world, and how effective is it in competitive or high pressure environments? This mainly concerns how we take informational inputs from our environment (perception), how we process that information (control), and how we put the information to effective use in being creative or solving problems (intelligence).

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In perception, we apply our senses to understand and negotiate the world we live in. Vision is our most immediate and rich sense. We absorb and transform the light around us into visual experiences and mental images that are intelligible and guide our actions. Throughout our lives, the brain appears to do this effortlessly because basic visual processing is finely tuned to operate without bothering our conscious minds with any awareness of it. But visual perception takes quite some computational wizardry. The brain is always making assumptions about how the world works, and actively constructing coherent perceptions in our mind’s eye from the inputs it receives from our retina. If you have poor eyes, you might adjust how these inputs hit the retina by using glasses or contact lenses. These tools transform the information into a format the brain can make optimal use of, by focusing light more precisely on the retina. But perhaps you could also improve how the visual inputs are processed in the brain. This would mean that even if your eyes work perfectly, you may still be able to enhance your visual ability by improving how efficiently the brain handles the information. I will expand on this in future blog posts. Be patient.

When I mention control in the WOW model, I am talking mostly about what neuroscientists call ‘executive function’. This concept seems to get broader every time somebody defines it, but for now it incorporates functions like working memory, attention, multitasking, and self-control; all functions for which the prefrontal cortex in the brain has a central role. Simply perceiving the world is no real end in itself (although ‘mindful’ moments of pure perception can enhance our lives - I will write a longer post about mindfulness soon). Normally, we want to select the most relevant perceptions, manipulate them in our mind, lock some of the important events into memory, and use all of this information to guide either action or self-control depending on how we feel. Why is this important for mental wellbeing? Well, these control processes lie at the all important intersection between perception and behavior. They transform the data entering our brains into practical output commands, and allow us to do many of the basic mental activities that give us a fulfilling life, like staying focussed, planning ahead, and owning our actions. If you had particularly poor control processes, you might forget the name of the person who introduced themselves to you a minute ago at a party, or you might find it difficult to avoid checking Facebook when you should be working in the office. I use these examples because they are particularly widespread, so don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you.

The final WOW factor for cognition is intelligence. I use this word in its broadest sense rather than exclusively referring to traditional IQ. It encapsulates how well we can learn and how well we can apply our basic mental perceptions and computations in everyday life to be creative or solve problems. It’s the difference between throwing away the excess apples on your farm, and trading the excess apples for chickens from the neighbor’s farm. This is a big part of what separates human from simian. Traditionally there have been two core dimensions of intelligence: crystallized and fluid intelligence. The first relates to the facts and knowledge we acquire over our lifetime while the second covers the quality of our reasoning ability. Both of these are important for strong cognitive performance, and essential in many modern day careers. Higher intelligence generally means better problem solving and productivity.

Our basic IQ resource is highly heritable and may not change much throughout the lifespan according to most scientific evidence. On average, identical twins (sharing 100% of their genes) who are separated at birth, will have more similar intelligence when they grow up, than non-identical twins (sharing 50% of their genes) who are brought up together. But still, learning has a profound influence on how well we negotiate the world and deal with problems, and this is all we should care about. If we can learn to perform better, that in itself is a goal worth chasing, regardless of exactly which intelligence module or submodule we happen to be targeting.

The segments in the WOW model are of course not completely independent of each other. There is undoubtedly overlap between traits like mindfulness and happiness, or control and intelligence. Our brain is a highly connected and integrated machine, and its various subsystems rarely work in isolation, so it shouldn’t be surprising that you get these kinds of interactions. The point of the model is to define mental wellbeing in a way that we can all understand it, discuss it, and distinguish it from physical wellbeing. Remember that emotion and cognition, and even mental and physical wellbeing, are coupled and overlapping. Although we can talk about the members of each pair separately, there is little doubt about their close relationship. Emotions impact cognition and cognition impacts emotions. Physical wellbeing helps mental wellbeing and vice versa.


Before it’s too late

We think little about our mental wellbeing until we find ourselves in drought of positive experiences. But we can change that. We need greater awareness of when we feel good so we can appreciate it and make the most of it, thereby boosting the mindful emotions I highlighted in WOW. But we also need greater confidence and understanding about what is going on when we feel bad. Some argue that we need negative experiences like sadness and anger because they have the power to inspire us and provide us with a more complete emotional life, and they may well be right. We have negative emotions for good reason. They offer a potent signal to threats we should be aware of. If you felt no fear in front of a bear in the forest, or no sadness when a close friend died, you probably wouldn’t find it easy to live a long or happy life. Some of our most significant learning experiences arise from contexts of sadness, anger, anxiety, or shame. If an event is important enough to cause a serious emotional reaction, there is probably something about it we need to remember and learn from. Negative emotions are not an enemy we should battle or ignore. We should treat them as relevant signals that we need to pay some attention to.

It should be obvious that my job is not to define exactly how you should feel or to tell you to avoid negative experiences at all costs (I’m barely managing to keep myself sane). I just want to present scientifically tested strategies and approaches for enhancing the good stuff in the WOW model. My intuition tells me the more of those characteristics and experiences you maximize, the better your life will be overall, but it is entirely up to you to decide what does and does not work in your own life. If a dose of sadness is what you need to write a powerful ballad in your music project, or anxiety is necessary for you to take an important event seriously, then that makes perfect sense. The important point is to be able to regulate those experiences rather than becoming their slave. In general, if I ask “What do you want from life? Happiness or sadness?”, the answer should be clear and obvious for any normal person. If we do need to experience moments of negative emotion, it should only ever be in the service of achieving that long term goal that we all want. Happiness and the other facets of mental wellbeing are what we desire. Therefore, each post in this blog focuses on the ways we can enhance exactly those dimensions.


One size will not fit all

Most of my work in neuroscience has involved running experiments with humans. At the end of these experiments, the goal is usually to identify features of brain or behavior that are reliably common across the population. This focus on groups rather than individuals in the sciences has reliably revealed general mechanisms in the human brain, but has been less effective in teaching us about the worlds in our own little heads. There are individual subtleties to our experiences given our unique personal histories and genetic makeup. Do not get me wrong here; it is a pleasant shock to realise just how similar we all are in many ways, and how often we all go through the same worries and pains even though we feel alone with them. An adult can only laugh when a teenager screams that nobody in the world has been treated as unfairly as they have in that moment. And adults are also quick to adopt a ‘woe is me!’ attitude when they worry about their careers or love lives, especially when compared to the apparently perfect lives of their friends. We are all kooky humans stuck in the same boat headed to Port Stupid. But we can all pay more attention to our inner kook and treat it as rationally as possible.

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We may be misguided in assuming that a one-size-fits-all approach could fix the troubles of our psyche, like a drug for headaches or vaccination for flu. This over-generalist ambition has complicated our view of ‘mental wellbeing’, and injects many of us with a cynicism towards the mission of self-improvement as a whole. I think a more fruitful approach is to present the evidence-based behavioral and cognitive strategies for enhancing our minds, and then encourage people to pick and choose how they apply those within their own lives depending on their own dispositions and personalities. As you read this blog, test a variety of options for yourself to see what works best, and tweak them or use them as inspiration to develop your own tools wherever they seem to fit. This will not be a step-by-step how-to manual. It will be more like a poetry collection where some chapters hopefully click immediately and work beautifully for you, while others require some stewing over before they inspire practical solutions. It is only through personal experimentation, challenge, and experience, that you will happen upon a set of tools that actually have a genuine lasting impact on your own mental wellbeing.

Yes, it is unfortunate that the world of mental wellbeing provides no reliable quick fixes. I cannot tell you to eat wholegrain and take omega-3 supplements to boost your brain power. The real world is messy and oversimplified interventions are unlikely to provide a noticeable benefit, or in some cases any benefit at all. Part of the reason we are currently so bad at treating mental disorders is precisely because too many people are selling or expecting these quick fixes. We are busy hoping for a pill to make us happy and mentally healthy because it is what we are used to: we take a painkiller to fix a headache, we have surgery to fix a broken wrist, and we take antibiotics to battle infections. It’s no surprise we should expect the same for a bruised ego, loneliness, or limited memory. I hate to break it to you but if you are honest with yourself, you already knew it. Pills and diets will only go so far to mending your mental wellbeing. Positive development takes effortful changes in attitudes, thinking patterns, and behavior, but the effort need not be boring. Read this blog with particular care to understand what the evidence is really showing, and how you can successfully apply the various strategies within your own life. One size may not fit all here but we can collect our own helpful nuggets from the same goldmine.

Next blog post: #3 We're So Needy

Previous (first ever) blog post: #1 No Quick Fixes