Money, happiness, and your mental wellbeing

Riches help us stay healthy, but apparently, money doesn’t make us happier.

As far back as 2004, researchers already concluded that life experiences are more likely to make us feel happy than material possessions. Despite that, like the participants of a 2014 study, we still feel that our money is better spent on material purchases than on life experiences.

In fact, some of us may not benefit from spending on a life experience at all. According to another study, if we’re buying an iPhone, a Balenciaga clutch and a Bulova watch to fit in with our peers, we’re not likely to feel happier after spending our hard-earned savings on a safari in Botswana or a nice dinner out with friends at a new gastropub like Timbre+. In fact, happiness won’t be the outcome for as many as a third of us, whether the purchase is something material or a life experience.

So, since getting the latest GoPro, admiring your newest acquisition at the Affordable Art Fair, eating your heart out at the current food fest Gourmet Japan, and taking your little ones to KidZania on Sentosa Island, may not improve your wellbeing, what could you be doing instead?

1. Know the value of your time
Happiness is linked to how much we value our time. A 2016 study found that happiness ratings were higher for people who chose to prioritise their time (e.g., a shorter commute or shorter working hours) over salary. It pays dividends to pursue work-life balance, it seems. But not necessarily in dollars and cents.

2. Practise gratitude
Results of a recent study show that those who express gratitude tend to place less emphasis on the contribution of material gains to their sense of satisfaction in life. To a smaller extent, people who experience positive emotions are also less likely to view material possessions as the ticket to happiness. So, even if shiny new things make you happy, you can elevate your wellbeing by being grateful. (And gratitude not only improves mood and sleep quality, but it’s associated with less inflammation and lowered risk for cardiac events).

3. Develop your sense of compassion
current study based at the Malaysia campus of The University of Nottingham is investigating the impact of loving-kindness meditation on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness. But earlier work has actually already established a number of benefits of practising mindfulness which focuses our attention on being kind and showing empathy to others. This sort of mindfulness practice encourages positive emotions and helps with anxiety and chronic pain.

4. Plan your travel and social events in advance
It seems that our experience of happiness — in the form of pleasantness and excitement — endures while we anticipate the enjoyment of a life experience. But this wellbeing doesn’t apply as well to material purchases, says a recent study in Psychological Science. In short, lengthening that anticipatory period might heighten our excitement and ultimately bring us more joy. Might we be even happier if our life experience was free (e.g., a picnic at Marina Barrage or a free concert).

5. Get involved with your community
Another way which raises our “psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing” involves voluntary work, while being employed on a full-time or part-time job. A 2015 study reports that voluntary work leads to greater satisfaction with work-life balance and lower stress levels.

6. Consider life’s adversities
It’s possible, it seems, to have too much of a good thing. Having an abundance of experience and being well-travelled, we can be underwhelmed by a visit to a “pleasant but ordinary” destination. But contemplating past adversities and considering life’s uncertainties, according to this 2015 study, can help us enjoy the small things in life.

7 Ways to Manage Your Stress

Burnout in the city

  • Do you get to work, but not feel like working (or doing anything)?
  • Have lots to do, but feel way too tired to tackle any of it?
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand?
  • Feeling disillusioned or being cynical at work?
  • Find yourself being more critical or irritable with others at work?

Did you answer yes to the questions?

There are inevitably days when we’re not motivated at all to be productive. We get to work but leave the tasks that need doing for “later”. Or we get started but take ages doing the stuff that needs to be done.

There are definitely work days when we’re too tired to be our efficient and productive model selves. Possibly from staying up late or waking too early. Or both. And we dose ourselves with (more) caffeine to keep going.

But having a feeling of being fatigued and unmotivated about work more than just occasionally is something to sit up and pay attention to. Feeling overwhelmeddisillusioned, and/or cynical at work are also warning signs of job burnout. Being less able to see things from the perspective of others at work (when you usually do) should also set off an alarm bell or two.

For those feeling the effects of burnout, it may be time to speak to HR or a professional counsellor. Doing a self-assessment may also be a step in the right direction:

  • Test yourself here.
  • Find out if you’re experiencing job burnout here.
  • Analyze why you may be experiencing stress at your workplace here.

For those of us who think our insipid days at the office occur as frequently as solar eclipses, we might still want to pay attention to how we deal with stress at work and home. Here’s how we can improve our ranking as a happy nation:

1. Carve out undisturbed time for work
A substantial number among the 292 local senior managers and business owners polled in an international 2015 workplace survey, said that they were most productive before 9am. It’s not that we need to shift our work hours. Rather, we need to carve out a block of time for work that’s not disturbed by emails and distracting conversations.

2. Put an embargo on emails
Checking your email later in the day allows you to take advantage of chunking. It’s more efficient to reply to a batch of urgent emails than to reply to every email as it comes in. It also has improves your mental wellbeing. A 2014 study found that those who checked their inbox only 3 times a day felt less stressed than their peers who had no limit on the number of times they could check their inbox a day.

3. Get the optimal amount of sleep
Employees in sleep-deprived Singapore usually say they need more sleep. So it might come as a surprise that there’s actually an optimal amount of sleep we should get, if we’re to maintain our mental and physical well-being.

The US National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 report recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for working adults. A 2014 study which followed 3,760 adults in Finland for an average of 7 years, found that the optimal amount of sleep was 7 to 8 hours a night. Those who slept over 10 hours a night were just as likely to be absent from work due to sickness as those who slept less than 5 hours a night.

If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be time to review your sleep habits: “Do you have a regular sleep schedule? Do you have a bedtime routine? Do you make sleep a priority?” Get more tips here.

But it may be that your sleepless nights relate to work-life balance. A 2015 study found that employees increased their sleep by one hour a week and were more efficient in getting to sleep after participating in a 3-month programme designed to train managers and employees how to better manage work-family conflicts. You might not have access to such a training programme, but work-family concerns are issues worth reviewing. If only just to get more sleep and improve your mood. Small things like that.

4. Get happy by napping 
So okay, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will get their much needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Once every other week, you’ll mess up your routine with too much caffeine, partying too hard, overworking, getting tired and cranky infants to bed, looking after sick pets, and many other reasons too innumerable to list.

That’s when you should plan to invest in a good quality nap. A 2015 study showed that 2 half-hour naps reversed the adverse effects of having only 2 hours of sleep on our stress response and immune system. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started.

5. Walk around the problem
It’s easier to sleep when you exercise. That’s not new. Neither is the news that people with depression in their 20s tend not to engage in physical activities. What’s new is the finding that those who exercise more as they age are less likely to be depressed. That’s what was found by a 2014 study which followed 11,135 adults until the age of 50.

Similarly, another 2014 study finds that those who go for group nature walks report better mental well-being and less stress. This may be explained by a 2014 finding: Recent research suggests that exercise plays a protective role in shielding our brain from the adverse effects of chronic stress — depression (read this article to understand the science behind this mechanism). So, it may be time you explored a nature park near you. Try something new: Springleaf Nature Park or Kranji Wetlands.

6. Go nuts on fruits and veggies
You’ll have better mental health if you eat more fruits and veggies. That’s what a 2014 study on 14,000 respondents in England found. The majority of those who reported high levels of “optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, and good relationships” said that they ate 3 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with over half of them eating 5 or more servings daily.

It may be that those with high mental well-being tend to have healthy lifestyle habits. But if you’re mental well-being scores are low (find out here), you might want to ask yourself, how many portions of fruits and veggies am I eating every day?

7. Comfort yourself but not with high-fat foods
Research suggests that a high-fat diet can adversely affect our mental health. Animal studies link gut bacteria from a high-fat diet to an increase in anxiety behaviours, while studies on humans find that taking prebiotics and probiotics improves our stress response to threatening stimuli. What this means is that having good gut bacteria could potentially help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And eating less saturated fat and more fruits and veggies will encourage good bacteria to make a home in our gut.

We may not know if we’re the ones who suffer the most from stress (we do actually — those with a more variable heart rate will suffer more from stress, says a 2014 study — but it’s not easy for the average consumer to measure their heart rate variability). But at least we know a few things we can do to change it.

Staying off tobacco

Just knowing the health risks of tobacco (including lung cancer, head and neck cancers, and heart disease) and the mental health benefits of quitting tobacco (getting better quality sleep, improved mental health, and reduced stress levels) may not be adequate reasons to motivate smokers to quit. Studies show that campaigns which emphasize the truth about the tobacco industry and the real cost of smoking are more effective in helping people quit.

Social support helps people quit tobacco

Social support helps people quit tobacco

But what else? Here are what the research says:

1. Guidance from a professional coach
Research shows that professional counselling can help smokers successfully quit: A coach or counsellor can help individuals develop a personal stop-smoking plan.

2. Reduce dependence using nicotine medicines 
There are 5 nicotine medicines which are recognised to boost the success of quitting tobacco: gum, patch, lozenge, nasal spray, and inhaler.

3. Going cold turkey isn’t for everyone
Quitting on willpower is the least successful way to quit tobacco. But counselling and nicotine substitutes are not the only available strategies. Exercise reduces the urge to smoke and withdrawal symptoms, while social support via social media is gaining popularity for its efficacy in helping ex-smokers stay tobacco-free. And there are a few more: hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and mindfulness are some of them.

4. Get the right kind of emotional support
Participants in a 2014 study were better at talking to their loved ones about quitting smoking if they had received face-to-face or online training on how to communicate their concern (without nagging or confrontation) than if they received only pamphlets.

5. Don’t be afraid to use your smartphone
A 2014 study showed that constant reminders from a text-messaging service helped people stay off tobacco.

6. Challenge your brain
Engaging in exciting activities (e.g., puzzles, hobbies, games), which challenge the brain, with a loved one can be an effective strategy for reducing nicotine cravings.

7. Use e-cigarettes to boost willpower
E-cigarettes create an inhalable nicotine vapour by heating a liquid nicotine solution. It’s not clear what the long-term effects are, but research shows e-cigarettes to be more effective in helping people successfully quit smoking compared to willpower alone or patches and gum. Recent reports do however caution the use of e-cigarettes (“No conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit: WHO report”, Today online, 27 August 2014).

That’s what friends are for

Living in a dense city apparently is bad for our health, according to news reports (“Mental health experts say city dwellers more prone to stress-related disorders“, Channel News Asia, 24 March 2014). It could be our competitive work ethic. It could be that our corporate culture lacks emphasis on work-life balance.

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

Whatever the reason, we typically experience an elevated amount of stress. Even though some report that we’re happy (read this report), there are indications that many aren’t happy at work (read this Straits Times report and this Today article).

And we should know the negative impact stress has on our mental and physical health. Because Mediacorp’s Channel 5 programme, Body and Soul, channelled all its energies into explaining mental health in its 8th episode (“Behind the curtain of depression” on 1st April 2014 9pm).

Despite this education campaign about mental health, the public’s awareness and understanding about depression will likely remain poor. And relatively few who need support for mental health problems seek professional help (here’s why). Those are the same reasons why there is a need to document Singaporeans’ understanding of mental health and the factors which motivate them to seek professional help (see these Today published on 19th and 20th March 2014).

But awareness campaigns work best through word of mouth. Friends these days are useful for providing entertainment through their lifehacks and buzzfeed posts, and for creating social envy among friends through the multitude of food pictures they post on their facebook. But they sometimes also provide emotional support to friends in need.

So on this World Suicide Prevention Day, it’s important that friends have the facts:

What Is Depression?

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor.

How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.

To help your friend or relative

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
  • Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
  • Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
  • Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
  • Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
  • Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.

Taken from the US NIMH Depression publication; the PDF is available here.

And friends don’t keep good information to themselves. They will want to spread the word.

Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

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!

The key to happiness

the key to happinessBeing happy is all the rage these days. It’s been reported with much fanfare that Singapore is the 30th happiest nation in the UN’s World Happiness ReportGallup wellbeing scores for local respondents, which have achieved a delirious increase from 46% to 70% between 2011 and 2012, have also received much media attention. Local newspapers are replete with tips for being happy (“You’re happy if you think you are”, Mind Your Body, 31 Oct 2013).

But as pointed out in various local news (e.g., “A measure of happiness in Singapore”, Asia News Network, 13 Oct 2013), the UN happiness index is about overall life satisfaction, whereas Gallup wellbeing scores are self-reported ratings for questions such as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”, “Did you feel well-rested yesterday?”, and “Did you learn something interesting yesterday?” on a scale of 1 to 10. Crucially, the UN happiness index comprises among other things gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, years of healthy life expectancy, and perceptions of corruption (“Singapore the happiest nation in Asia: UN study”, My Paper, 11 Sept 2013). In light of that, achieving a ranking at the top 20th percentile is then perhaps not wholly remarkable.

Interestingly, the 1,000 local respondents in the 2011 Gallup survey included residents living in private housing, whereas the equivalent number of local respondents in the subsequent annual survey appeared to have no representation from this group, which make up 12% of the general population. It’s also noteworthy that the face-to-face surveys were conducted between 1st September and 30th October in the preceding year of 2011, but between 22nd December 2012 and 28th March 2013 for the 2012 survey.

But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we understand the factors which impact our mental wellbeing, and that we try out various ways to improve our mental wellbeing.

Here’s FOUR ideas to chew on:

  1. Nothing like exercise

    Findings from a cross-cultural epidemiological study of 17, 246 young adults (Grant, Wardle, & Steptoe, 2009) indicate positive correlations between life satisfaction and physical exercise (as well as eating fruit!). Although their findings appeared to suggest a mediating role for physical health, it is clear from those and other findings that exercise improves mental wellbeing. A recent study (Maher et al., 2013) with 253 participants found that young adults reported greater life satisfaction on days when they engaged in physical activity compared to other days, even after controlling for other factors such as gender, BMI, daily fatigue). So if that’s not persuasive enough, this blog on why we need exercise from The Dr Oz Show might help convince you to get up and out to the park.

  2. Assess your mental wellbeing

    Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and feelings of sadness from time to time. But perhaps you or someone you’re concerned about is experiencing more stress than usual and showing signs of burnout at their workplace or as a caregiver. There’s no better motivation to engage in good self-care than when you’re convinced that you need it! This anonymous self-assessment tool will help you assess your mental wellbeing, while a burnout questionnaire can be insightful for not only employees, but caregivers. Once you’ve assessed your stress levels, you might be more willing to give the other things below a go!

  3. Get some zzzs

    Sleep is highly underrated when we’re young. Okay, we’re not that young anymore but nonetheless sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting enough rest is essential to not only our problem solving abilities, but also closely related to our mood and mental wellbeing. A study (Dinges et al., 1997) found that an accumulated sleep debt equivalent to 33% less sleep than normal negatively affected psychomotor vigilance and working memory performance. Moreover, the removal of sleep deprivation produced a significant improvement in participants’ mood. And what’s more. The link between sleep problems and mood disorders including depression has also been well established in the literature (Breslau et al., 1996; Neckelmann et al., 2007; Weissman et al., 1997). So it’s important to get some good quality REM (and not the Shiny Happy People kind)!

  4. Relaxation is key

    Tips for managing stress always seem to revolve around a million things which should make us feel good. Tips often include things like having a bubble bath, taking the dog for a walk at Pasir Ris Eco Green, having brunch at Selfish Gene Cafe with friends, peering at migratory birds at Sungei Buloh, and spending the afternoon painting at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, as well as paying someone to press your head and shoulders, crack your knuckles, pull your toes, and fold your knee across your body. Other strategies include being thankful and forgiving, being encouraging to someone else, and being aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. The underlying notion behind most of these strategies is that chronic stress is harmful to our heath. It’s not only responsible for poor immune functioning, but has long-lasting negative consequences for our cognitive abilities. Prolonged exposure to stress damages our hippocampus – a brain structure responsible for consolidating short-term memory to long-term memory (Sapolsky, Krey, & McEwen, 1986). So, looking after yourself is the key to good mental wellbeing (and happiness). But more importantly, along with lowering one’s risk of vascular diseases, it plays a key role in protecting against dementia.

All work and no play makes Jack miserable

The benefits of exercise to work productivity are well established. But newer findings suggest that engaging in hobbies can be just as helpful in promoting physical and emotional health. Some hobbies can even be profitable.

Findings by Cuypers, Krokstad, Holmen, Knudtsen, Bygren, & Holmen (2011) published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health revealed that participating in receptive and creative cultural activities was associated with good health, satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both men and women for their population-based sample of 50,797 participants from Norway. In particular, being directly involved in the creative process was more strongly associated with positive health outcomes than passive appreciation of cultural activities, particularly for male participants. On the whole, engagement in more activities was associated with greater benefits than being involved in fewer activities.

So, go head. Play, dance, get involved. it’s time to switch on that creative brain!

Drawing, painting, & crafts:

Craft & Flea Markets:

Dancing:

Film & Cinema:

Music Gigs & Guides:

Freebies in Singapore:

Visual Arts:

Performance Arts: