What’s the deal with mental wellbeing?

Mental wellbeing, what is it? It is, according to the World Health Organization, “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. But what’s the deal with mental wellbeing? Well, here are some facts about mental wellbeing:

  1. Employee wellbeing is lower than that of the general population.

    A media report last year (“Mental well-being of working adults 13% lower than general population”, Asiaone, 3 Aug 2012) revealed that mental wellbeing among employees in Singapore was 13% lower than that of the general population. Results from the HPB survey comprising a 1,000 respondent sample showed that working adults were more likely to experience higher levels of stress than non-working adults.

  2. Is employee wellbeing just a “nice-to-have”?

    It’s been established in research that employees’ mental wellbeing is indicative of their engagement and work performance. This view is supported by findings that “employees who are dissatisfied and unhappy are also more likely to be disengaged, absent without valid reasons, cynical, non-cooperative and more likely to engage in counter-productive behaviour” (“The importance of employee well-being”, Business Times, 25 Sep 2013).

  3. Mental wellbeing constructs include psychological resilience, social-emotional intelligence and cognitive capacity

    The definition of mental wellbeing proposed by the local authority on health and wellness, Health Promotion Board, comprises psychological constructs which include self-esteemsocial intelligence, psychological resilienceemotional intelligence, and cognitive efficacy. Positive outcomes such as life satisfaction are closely associated with higher scores on measures of these constructs. As such, it’s worth knowing how to improve one’s self-esteem, social and emotional intelligence, resilience, and cognitive competencies.

  • Some self-esteem is desirable

    Correlational evidence indicate that self-esteem, based on self-report measures, is positively associated with mental wellbeing. That is, having low self-esteem likely reflects poorer life satisfaction and mental wellbeing. However, other findings also indicate that it may be important to not view self-esteem as a goal but rather a by-product of psychological wellbeing. As noted in a Harvard Mental Health Letter, it may be also important to examine implicit self-esteem, rather rely on an explicit measure of self-esteem such as self-report. Another way to think about this is that it’s important to develop self-esteem, but it’s also critical that self-esteem arises from positive reinforcement which is provided to reward real improvements in work competence and/or academic performance. This Psychology Today article, “Parenting: The Sad Misuse of Self-esteem” provides useful tips for parents. There are also strategies to help those with low self-esteem: This November 2013 press release by the Association of Psychological Science suggests that touch may be one such useful strategy.

  • Social intelligence is the ability to navigate social interactions

    The ability to thrive in the social world depends on our ability to understand and interpret social situations and act appropriately. In keeping with in this textbook definition of social intelligence, our understanding and ability to manage complex social interactions is what helps us manage at the workplace and at home. Psychology Today provides tips for developing social intelligence, while social intelligence can be observed to have business applications, as this article in the Bangkok Post business section suggests. But the concept of social intelligence does overlap with that of emotional intelligence, so read on!

  • Emotional intelligence is rooted in the ability to perceive and manage one’s or other people’s emotions

    The authors of emotional intelligence propose that people with high emotional intelligence are those who are able to solve problems relating to emotions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). One such example cited in Mayer’s clarification on what emotional intelligence is (and is not) in Psychology Today, is the ability to accurately identify people’s facial emotion. A consequence of having emotional intelligence is the capacity to respond appropriately to perceived emotions, thus facilitating one’s ability to manage emotions in oneself and others. More recent empirical research supports the importance of emotional intelligence to successful relationships at home and at the workplace (Salovey & Grewal, 2005). Programmes to build up emotional intelligence are not only catching on at schools, a topic which a New York Times article documents and a Huffington Post report explores, but they are also being implemented at the workplace. Reassuringly, cognitive-behavioural approaches to training up our emotional intelligence are shown to be effective (“Can you really improve your emotional intelligence?”, Harvard Business Review, 29 May 2013). But first, perhaps you might want to find out what your EQ is? Try this quiz!

  • Psychological resilience is key

    Resilience is key to boosting mental wellbeing. While self-esteem and cognitive abilities likely reflect our capacity to realize our own potential, and social and emotional intelligence help us live productively and fruitfully, resilience plays an important role in our ability to cope with the daily stressors of our lives. The public broadcasting service (US) has an excellent definition of resilience, while the Huffington Post article “Hope and Survival: The Power of Psychological Resilience” offers illuminating illustrations. And there are many ways to build resilience: Psychology Today describes the 10 traits of emotionally resilient people; this magazine Experience Life! includes self-care as a useful tip; a Harvard Business Review mentions the role of optimism in building resilience; Forbes offers a change in perspective; and Life argues for teachable moments from the difficulties we face in life. We can’t possibly learn to get up when we haven’t had the chance to fall down.

  • How fluid is our cognitive capacity?

    Having good mental wellbeing also means that we’re able to analyze problems, find solutions, make decisions, and do ordinary things like remember, read, and recall things. Research shows that these abilities can be improved with training, and this applies to even school-age children. Lucky for us, other studies have demonstrated that playing video games can enhance our cognitive kills. Playing Starcraft helped young adults with no gaming experience improve their cognitive flexibility, while practice at a divided-attention task (with a car-driving video game interface) helped older adults improve not only their scores for tasks of attention skills but also their performance at working memory tasks (“Put away the knitting”, The Economist, 7 Sept 2013). Of course, it should be remembered that this is only an effective strategy when it’s novel to us. Challenging our brains to learn something cognitively demanding improves not only working memory but episodic memory – our ability to remember new things (Park & Lodi-Smith, Drew et al., 2013). This recent study shows that, in contrast, there are no benefits to staying in our comfort zone (“Mentally challenging activities improve memory as baby boomers age”, UT Dallas,  22 Oct 12). Caffeine is another way to boost our problem-solving and thinking abilities in the short-term (and the short-term can be quite useful!). But of course, too much caffeine has consequences on our ability to make good judgements about our and other people’s emotions, as well as wise decisions in difficult social situations (“Caffeine: The silent killer of emotional intelligence”, Forbes, 21 August 2012). Can’t have too much of a good thing!