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Good mental health: How to improve yours (and maintain it for life)

a relaxed and happy man maintains his good mental health

Good mental health is one of the most important ingredients for an enjoyable life. You can have all the success in the world - whether that's through money, fame, or achievement - but still be unsettled, unsatisfied and unwell. Your internal state is what dictates your perception and experience of each day, and when things aren't working out, external affairs can be pretty meaningless.

If you spend a lot of energy focusing on the material things, you're missing out on a key part of creating that positive internal state. Having good mental health is something all of us need to aim for in the quest for peace, prosperity and happiness.

But what is good mental health? And if you're free from any diagnosed mental conditions, does that mean you've got it? The answer might be a little different to what you think.

Let's take a look at exactly what it means.

Table of contents
What is good mental health?
Why is good mental health important?
How to have good mental health
How to maintain good mental health
What are five signs of good mental health?

What is good mental health?

Good mental health is the state of being able to act, think and feel the way you want to. It's the ability to live your life feeling generally positive about things, and to cope with negative events in a healthy way.

It's not just the absence of certain mental health issues or conditions (like depression or anxiety). It's the state of flourishing, with a positive internal condition above the baseline of just being "fine" or "okay". Some people might think that good mental health is defined as the absence of emotional problems, but that's not really the whole story.

It's close to happiness, but more on the 'wellbeing' side than the 'experiencing pleasure' side.

Good mental health is a state; it's a condition that can come and go over time. It can be promoted with intentional actions and lifestyle choices. It can be helped by medical intervention (whether that's pharmaceutical or psychological) and can be coached if you're unsure where to start.

Below, we'll take a look at why good mental health is important, how to improve your mental health, how to maintain it over the long term, and some other useful mental health tips.

Why is good mental health important?

With a solid grasp on your mental health you'll be more in control of your emotions, both positive and negative.

If you have a bad day, that's fine and normal - you can deal with whatever happens and be back to baseline soon enough. If you're having a great day, you won't embarrass yourself socially by getting too amped up, or make promises you can't keep when feeling unnaturally optimistic.

Without a balanced state of mental health, you're more prone to those emotions dragging you down into forms of sadness, low energy or chaotic anxiety that can disrupt your ability to be in control of your life.

Your mental health doesn't just affect your day-to-day functioning. It can affect your relationships (at work and in your personal life) and your ability to make good decisions for your long-term future. It's amazing how your perception of circumstances can change not based on actual reality, but based on your limited viewpoint and chemical / hormonal balance within your body. If your mental health is good over the long term, life becomes more tolerable, enjoyable, and a time in which you can thrive.

Positive mental health is important in the context of society, too: if most people have good mental health, their productivity at work will be better, the societal healthcare burden will be reduced, and people will be less at risk of committing crimes, becoming homeless, or relying on welfare assistance. Good mental health points towards good societal health.

How to have good mental health

When you're looking for guidance on how to improve mental health, it's important to cover all your bases. There's a number of different pillars that make for positive mental wellbeing, including physical, emotional, and social health. There are also differing timeframes involved - some simple behaviors can lift you up in a matter of minutes, others make their effects known over months.

Firstly, let's look at the quicker fixes - the short-term actions you can take to improve your mental health on a daily basis. It begins with the physical 'fundamentals'.

The five fundamentals of good mental health

There's a bunch of frameworks and models out there that sum up this idea, which is all about the status of your mind in relation to your body.

In short: if you don't take care of these in the short-term, you probably won't be able to fix things in the long term.

One neat way to sum them up is from human optimization teacher Brian Johnson of Optimize: 'Eat, move, sleep, breathe, focus.' These are the five aspects, he says, of the daily areas you must address for good mental health.

1. Eat good food

As much as you can wish it otherwise, eating the tastiest food won't always make you happy. Eating junk food - or processed food inaccurately marketed as 'natural' - is one of the easiest ways to feel worse than you should.

While there's a whole internet out there full of dietary advice, here we'll keep it simple, and borrow a phrase from food writer Michael Pollan: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Remember: what you want isn't always what you need when it comes to food. If you're craving something tasty, you might be crashing from a blood-sugar disrupting snack earlier that makes you feel hungrier than you really are. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugar as much as you can, due to their disruptive effects on your daily mood and long-term wellbeing.

Or you can always follow the sage family wisdom of "if your grandmother wouldn't call it food, it's not food".

If you want to be super sure about what's best for your body and mind, it's worth talking to a qualified nutritionist and getting advice tailored to your needs.

2 . Move your body

If you've been sitting at a desk all day and feel kinda crummy, the two are probably linked. The solution - move, however you can.

This could involve going for a walk, dancing around in your room, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or having a session in the gym.

If you've got time and a day to spare, go on a hike. 'Forest bathing' or 'nature therapy' has been shown to have various measurable health benefits - immersing yourself in nature for a short time takes you back to your primal human state, from when we lived in tribes and roamed the land on foot. It's a superb way to 'get out of your head' in a healthy way.

Walking for at least 30 minutes a day is a practice that'll keep you sane and satisfied.

3 . Sleep

Pretty much every living being in the animal kingdom sleeps in some form or another; it's crucial for life. Do not underestimate the power of a good night's sleep to radically transform your daily life: the link between sleep and mental health is a strong one.

Sometimes, poor mental health can be either the cause or result of bad sleep, and it's not always easy to know which one. But if you never really think about your sleep habits and environment, you might be missing a crucial missing link in living up to your potential.

Sleeping well has become an area of intense interest recently, with sleep scientist Matthew Walker leading the crusade for us all to prioritize sleep as our #1 health concern. If you haven't already, check out his TED talk and find out what simple changes you can make that might have big results.

How many bad decisions were made throughout history by people running on too little sleep? One shudders to think.

4 . Breathe

It's something you've practiced more than anything else, but can you really say you're good at it? Breathing is so important for reducing stress and giving your brain the fuel it needs to function properly.

Whether it's a daily practice of meditation, or even just a minute or two of intentional slow breathing, you can easily fit this crucial practice into the quiet moments of your day.

It's worth checking your environmental carbon dioxide levels too - stuffy, badly-ventilated rooms can have seriously bad effects on your concentration and mood.

5 . Focus

One symptom of poor mental health is an inability to focus. Living a hectic life in a hectic world makes it difficult to slow down and direct your attention to one thing, even just for a short amount of time.

But a permanently restless mind is not a healthy one. You can't deal well with problems or reach a state of proper relaxation without being able to ignore the outside world for a while and give all your attention to one thing.

A regular focus practice is essential for calming your mind. This could involve meditation, which almost always has positive benefits.

But if that's not your bag, why not try reading a book, or painting, or working on a craft project? Time away from distractions (especially of the digital kind) is one of the best ways to protect your attention. Remember, if it's not something you do often, it might take a while to get used to. Attention is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Connect with people

The above tips for improving your mental health focused on the fundamental self-care routines that will help you build a robust inner state. The next aspect of achieving good mental health involves looking outwards, towards other people.

Connection with other humans is a vital part of cultivating positive mental health, and it's one that's easily overlooked. If you've ever played the videogame 'The Sims', you'll know how this works.

It's a game where you oversee the lives of people going about their daily business in a sort of experimental sandbox. You quickly find out that leaving people to follow their every whim and desire doesn't lead to good long-term outcomes - they need direction. Your Sim has a range of needs, represented by bars showing different amounts. If their bladder bar is full, they need to go to the bathroom. If their hunger bar is empty, they need to eat. And if their 'social' bar is empty, they need connection.

In the videogame, it's easy to diagnose a lonely Sim - just look at their stats. But in real life, it's not always so obvious. Some people, especially the more introverted folks, can go quite a while without interacting with people. While we're more cognizant of this than ever before, mid-pandemic, the signs of a lack of connection just don't show up too well.

But lack of meaningful social connection is one of the prime indicators of poor mental health. Social connectedness has been found to have a strong link to psychological health in wider populations.

You can connect with people in lots of different ways:

  • Phone a friend you haven't talked to in a while
  • Make conversation with a stranger in a bar or cafe
  • Play online gaming with your buds
  • Go to a sports or activity club
  • Go to networking events or debate clubs
  • Walk your dog and say hi to other dog walkers
  • Volunteer at a local charity
  • Say hi to your neighbors
  • Make conversation with cashiers or other service workers

Sometimes, these surface-level connections are enough to satisfy that daily need for social interaction. At least one per day is something to aim for if you live alone, for example. For longer-term connection needs, we'll look at that below.

How to maintain good mental health

The above section outlined some quicker fixes to focus on when you're aiming to improve your mental health. But over bigger stretches of time, you do have to think differently to ensure good long-term mental health.

Here are some of the ways you can drive positive wellbeing over weeks, months and years.

Maintain healthy habits and routines

Those habits we explored above shouldn't be treated as the cure for poor mental health - they're the prevention. And they get more useful over time.

Think of it like a bank account with compound interest. Those little additions to your 'lifestyle bank' can have massively positive outcomes down the line. Discipline, routine and systematic thinking will take you far - Atomic Habits is a good place to start.

Saying 'hi' to people can give you a small lift, but talking to people regularly will build relationships and overall wellbeing. How else can your daily routine be translated into long-term outcomes?

Talk about things

Letting your problems stay hidden isn't always the best way to deal with them. If something's eating you up, one of the best ways to heal is to share your feelings with a trusted party - a friend, partner, family member, or professional.

Talking therapy is good in certain circumstances. It won't work for everyone, and it's possible that you can use talking about an issue as a distraction from actually confronting it. But for longer-term issues that keep coming up, seeing a psychiatrist or qualified professional is a healthy approach to have.

Talking is one of the best ways to understand a problem - when you have to put something into words, it can immediately make you see it in a different light.

Have something to aim for

Without goals, you can coast through life and find yourself in a place of boredom or dissatisfaction.

Chris Guillebeau, author of 'The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding The Quest That Will Bring Purpose To Your Life', suggests we all find a 'quest' to bring fulfilment to life's journey:

"If you want to get the embers burning, you have to blend dissatisfaction with inspiration, and then you have to connect the dissatisfaction to a greater purpose."

Is there something you can aim for? A goal that'll push you through the difficult days and make you want to adopt good habits? Setting life goals has been shown to help improve mental health outcomes - check out our guide to setting life goals for more.

Think about the bigger picture

To be blunt: if your life sucks, your mental health won't be good. And you can be in perfect physical shape and have tons of friends but still be unsatisfied. Your inner state reflects your outer experience.

So if things aren't improving, it might be time to really confront yourself and figure out what's eating you.

Is it time to get out of that relationship that isn't going anywhere?

Are you following someone else's path or your own?

Are you actually in a career you're interested in, or just muddling along?

Can you change things you previously thought unchangeable?

These hard questions aren't easy to answer, but they might be some of the most important ones you'll ever ask.

Forget about yourself for a while

Some of these answers don't come easily. And the answer might not even come from an increased amount of self-reflection. Sometimes, the best way to improve your wellbeing is to forget about yourself and focus on others.

If you're trying to figure out potential big changes in your life, you might find that revelations don't come to you from ruminating - they instead come from getting out there into the world and helping other people.

Have you ever struggled with a puzzle or challenge that seemed impossible until you stepped away and forgot about it? The phrase 'sleep on it' is based on the fact that your subconscious mind is often better at figuring out problems than your conscious mind. Well, the same goes for life problems.

Sometimes, focusing on other people for a while will have the same effect.

Remember: it's an ongoing journey. If you treat improving your mental health as a long-term goal, it's going to have to be specific. Because of the broad nature of this topic, there won't be a defined line you cross from 'not good' to 'good'.

What are five signs of good mental health?

1. You're in good physical health.

The mind-body connection is real. Studies have repeatedly shown that some form of regular exercise has measurable, positive effects on mental health. If you're in good physical shape, or are making positive strides in achieving physical health, there's a good chance your mental health will be doing well, too.

It's certainly possible to be in great shape and be depressed, or anxious, or totally lost in life. Some people find excessive gym use to be a distraction from painful circumstances in their life, and it can even become an addiction for a small minority of them. While it's probably a healthier addiction than alcohol or drugs, it can tip over into damaging behavior when you overtrain your body.

So - as long as you're being sensible, a healthy body will usually point to a healthy mind. 

2. You have positive relationships.

The ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with people is a key part of mental wellness.

Part of this involves being proactive. It's easy to think "why hasn't my friend been in touch with me in a while?" - but they might be thinking the same of you. Reaching out to ask someone for a meetup, a conversation, a hike out in the countryside, or a video gaming night is a great way to keep things going.

If you (or the friend you're thinking of) aren't reaching out to socialize, it could be a sign of poor mental and emotional health. Checking in and connecting, even briefly, could do you both the world of good.

If you're frequently arguing with your friends, or you're in and out of romantic relationships a lot, or there's just generally a lot of 'drama' in your personal life, it could be a sign that your mental health isn't where it could ideally be.

3. You have hope for the future

Part of having better mental health is believing that things will be good - or better - in the future.

With an internal locus of control, you'll feel like you're in control of what happens in your life. This means you might be more likely to feel hopeful when you have the reins of your own destiny in your hands.

If you have an external locus of control instead, this might be more difficult. This trait means you feel that the events of your life are happening to you, and you're just along for the ride. In the face of a complex world facing a whole heap of challenges, it's easier to get overwhelmed and downcast about the state of global affairs.

It's completely fine to have periods of low energy or motivation, but hope is that flickering light in the dark that keeps us alive and ready to stand up when life knocks us down. With a sense of hope, those bad days can be survived. That's a sign of good mental health.

4. You have goals

Goals are where abstract hope turns into real outcomes.

Setting goals and achieving them is a sign of good mental health because it means you've got realistic ideas about what you're capable of, and you're strong enough to execute on them.

The boost you get from hitting a target you set for yourself is incredible. If you make a habit of doing that, it's a sign that you're in control of your life, and your emotions aren't clouding your judgement. You aren't overpromising in a fit of mania, and you're not underestimating your abilities due to low self-esteem.

5. You can deal with challenges in a healthy way

One of the best signs of good mental health is resilience. It's the ability to deal with the challenges that life throws at you. Essentially it means that you don't get overwhelmed when things hit the fan.

Remember: good mental health doesn't mean you're happy and positive 100% of the time. Bad stuff will happen in life, and that's fine. But retreating into your shell or becoming a nervous wreck is not the best way to cope with adversity.

You can learn to become more resilient both through training courses, increased exposure to things that make you uncomfortable, and intentionally examining your responses to adverse events. 

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