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Emotional well-being: It matters more than you think

woman maintains emotional well being in check

If negative emotions hijack your daily life, and you’re struggling to feel positive, it’s time to tend to your emotional well-being.

While physical fitness gets a lot of attention, emotional wellness affects your mind and body, too, so don’t ignore this critical piece of overall well-being.

Table of contents
What is emotional well-being? How do you describe emotional well-being?
How do you measure emotional well-being?
What does it mean to be emotionally well?
What are some examples of emotional wellness?
What are the components of emotional well-being?
How to improve your emotional well-being
In your pursuit of health, don’t neglect emotional well-being

What is emotional well-being? How do you describe emotional well-being?

The exact definition of emotional health and well-being is pretty tough to pin down. But here are a few definitions that can give you an idea of how to describe emotional well-being.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, has said:

Emotional well-being has been defined as an overall positive state of one’s emotions, life satisfaction, sense of meaning and purpose, and ability to pursue self-defined goals. Elements of emotional well-being include a sense of balance in emotion, thoughts, social relationships, and pursuits.”

The American Psychological Association defines well-being as “a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.” 

Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, defines emotional well-being as “the ability to practice stress-management and relaxation techniques, be resilient, boost self-love, and generate the emotions that lead to good feelings.”

Of course, emotional well-being is just one aspect of health. Physical, psychological, spiritual, social and emotional well-being affect each other and form the overarching picture of one’s total health.

How do you measure emotional well-being?

Psychologists have developed many frameworks and scales for describing and measuring emotional well-being. Here are just a few:

PERMA-Profiler: Based on the five pillars of well-being mentioned in psychologist Martin Seligman's book Flourish, the PERMA-profiler measures how well adults are flourishing in these five areas:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS): As the name implies, the PANAS scale consists of 10 items measuring positive affect and 10 items measuring negative affect (emotions). It can measure how someone generally feels on average, or it can measure specific timeframes, such as the present moment or the past week.

Life Orientation Test (LOT): The LOT measures how much optimism versus pessimism a person has.

Optimism-Pessimism Scale: This scale measures how someone frames life events: in a positive way or negative way.

What does it mean to be emotionally well?

When it comes to defining emotional wellness, the terms can get blurry. This is because emotions are more difficult for an outsider to observe than, say, physical fitness. If you wanted to find out someone’s physical health, you could run blood tests to ensure their cholesterol levels are low or have them partake in an exercise stress test to measure their heart’s functioning. 

But with emotional wellness, it’s not so objective.

“In the research, we primarily use self-report surveys to ask people how they are doing emotionally,” says Dr. Davis. “We tend to have a pretty good sense of whether we're happy, satisfied with our relationships, etc., and these are the things that constitute well-being. So our responses to these surveys are our measure of well-being.”

What are some examples of emotional wellness?

Still, some behaviors can clue you in to how balanced and healthy your emotional state is. Here are some examples of emotional wellness:

  • Letting yourself acknowledge and feel your emotions without judgment
  • Finding healthy ways to cope with those uncomfortable “negative” emotions (anger, envy, sadness, etc.)
  • Expressing your emotions to someone else, such as telling someone why what they did made you feel unappreciated and what you’d like to see from them in the future (versus letting your anger build up until you start shouting at them).
  • Going for a run after work as a way to manage the stress of your job
  • Allowing yourself to cry
  • Writing a list of things you’re grateful for and reflecting on it, instead of wallowing in sadness

Dr. Davis adds: “Some psychologists suggest that emotional wellness is just a lack of negative symptoms. So each day, we might be free of anxiety and depression. Others have suggested that this definition doesn't go far enough and that emotional wellness is more like thriving—each day, we might wake up feeling positive about the day, engage in behaviors that help us reach our goals, and have positive social interactions with others.

In a crisis situation, emotional wellness can look different for different people, but generally, it involves implementing healthy emotion regulation strategies. For example, we might look for the silver linings or reach out to friends for social support. This is in contrast to unhealthy strategies which might involve turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with difficulties.”

What are the components of emotional well-being?

Based on the NCCIH’s definition, these are some of the components of emotional well-being:

  • Overall positive state of one’s emotions. Just as physical wellness is not the mere absence of disease, emotional wellness is not the mere absence of negative emotions. Someone who is emotionally well will still feel negative emotions, such as disappointment, sadness and anger. Someone who is emotionally well, though, will predominantly feel positive emotions, such as joy, excitement and gratitude.
  • Life satisfaction. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, life satisfaction is “the extent to which a person finds life rich, meaningful, full, or of high quality.”
  • Sense of meaning and purpose. Emotionally well people have a strong sense of purpose, meaning they know their reason for living and feel they have something to contribute to the world.
  • Ability to pursue self-defined goals. Someone who is emotionally well isn’t crippled by negative emotions that hold them back from chasing their goals. For example, someone who is emotionally unwell might lack feelings of motivation or might be paralyzed by fear and unable to pursue what they want.
  • Emotional regulation. The ability to healthily cope with emotions is essential to finding emotional balance. It’s not about “getting rid of” uncomfortable or distressing emotions, but rather, finding healthy ways to manage them.

Some additional components of emotional well-being as defined by recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison include:

  • Awareness: “attentiveness to one’s environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings”
  • Connection: “appreciation, kindness and compassion”
  • Insight: “fostering curiosity and self-knowledge”
  • Purpose: “understanding your values and motivations”

How to improve your emotional well-being

Get to know your emotions

It’s hard to regulate what you don’t know! If you’re accustomed to ignoring emotions, it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling. Part of emotional intelligence (a crucial life skill) is being able to identify emotions so you know how to manage them. 

Try using an interactive emotion wheel and feel free to Google what certain emotions mean because they can be extremely nuanced and difficult to pinpoint. For example, disillusionment and eagerness are both emotions rooted in surprise. So your boss might tell you that he’s promoting you (which you were expecting), but instead of placing you in charge of the design team like you wanted, he thinks you’ll do better as a project manager. You might initially think, “I feel surprised,” but if you dig deeper into that general emotion, you might pinpoint that you actually feel disillusioned (“I feel let down because my career hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to.”) Or you might pinpoint that you feel eager (“I can’t wait to start on this new, unexpected adventure!”)

Check in with your physician

Again, our well-being has many pillars, and the physical aspect can affect the emotional (and vice versa). Go in for an annual checkup with your physician to ensure there isn’t any physical illness or disorder that is affecting your emotions. For example, hormone imbalances can affect your emotions.

Journal

Journaling is a great way to track your emotions and how they’re affecting your life, and it’s an excellent source of information when you’re trying to see how far you’ve come toward your emotional well-being goals.

Write a list of things you’re grateful for

Research has shown that gratitude is linked to emotional well-being; in particular, it can boost happiness and optimism. But gratitude is not a passive thing; you can actively cultivate it. This requires mindfulness and intentionality. One recommended practice is the “three things” gratitude exercise, where at the end of the day, you list three things that happened that day that you’re grateful for and include an explanation for why you think they happened. This can help you refocus on good things instead of letting negative events get in the way.

Write about your best possible self

In research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky found that asking participants to visualize their best possible selves and then write about it for two to four weeks was enough to boost and maintain positive affect. 

These are the exact instructions that were given to participants in the experiment: 

“Think about your best possible self now, and during the next few weeks. ‘Think about your best possible self’ means that you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams, and of your own best potentials. In all of these cases you are identifying the best possible way that things might turn out in your life, in order to help guide your decisions now. You may not have thought about yourself in this way before, but research suggests that doing so can have a strong positive effect on your mood and life satisfaction. So, we’d like to ask you to continue thinking in this way over the next few weeks, following up on the initial writing that you’re about to do.”

Participants were then instructed to write about their “ideal life in the future” in as much detail as possible.

Practice optimism

Genuine optimism (not to be confused with toxic positivity) is about expecting good things to happen, not pretending that bad things don’t or didn’t happen. For example, let’s say that you didn’t get the house that you put in an offer for. 

This is, of course, a disappointing outcome. An emotionally well, optimistic person will allow themselves to feel the initial sadness. They might cry about it or vent about it to their partner. But after the initial feelings of hurt have passed, they will frame the future in a positive way and might say something like, “This hurts, but I learned so much about the home-buying process, so now I’m even better prepared the next time a house I like comes onto the market. There’s bound to be another house I want, and I’m excited to find it.”

Get a coach

It’s hard to improve something you don’t even see. While you may be aware that you need help improving your emotional well-being, you may be missing some key aspects of what you need to work on. Coaches are trained to evaluate a situation and ask probing questions that can bring to light the things that are evading you. They can then collaborate with you to establish goals for your emotional well-being and craft a plan for achieving them. It can also help immensely to have someone check in with you for accountability.

Try therapy

Mental health and emotional health are inextricably tied. If you’re finding that your emotions are all over the place, and you’re having a tough time regulating them or coping with them healthily, it’s a great time to find a good therapist to work with (though it’s never too early to find one!).

In your pursuit of health, don’t neglect emotional well-being

As you can see, emotional well-being is an important pillar in overall well-being. Emotions affect everything, from how we think to how our bodies function. Be kind to your mind and body by tending to your emotional health.

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