Okay, a lot of my mental health posts tend to focus on the negative: coping with depression, surviving suicidal thoughts, etc. And those things are absolutely vital because no amount of positive thinking can cure mental illness, but that doesn’t mean mental illness is the only aspect of psychology that matters. Our mental health is so much bigger than “mentally ill” or “not mentally ill.” There’s such a spectrum between those two labels, and so many aspects of our human psyche that need to be explored outside of that spectrum entirely.
The PERMA Model of Wellbeing
One emerging school of thought that does exactly that is positive psychology. Instead of looking for risk factors and adverse experiences and illnesses, positive psychology looks for factors that have a positive impact on our minds. Through their research, positive psychologists have come up with a theory of wellbeing called PERMA, which stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments.
I really like this model, because it provides multiple avenues for developing a healthy mindset. I don’t always have the ability to generate positive emotions due to my wacky brain chemistry and years of negative emotions carving stubborn neural pathways, and some people don’t have access to meaningful relationships in their day-to-day lives, and others may find it hard or impossible to achieve accomplishments that they or society find meaningful. But if you are lacking in one area, you can look for wellness in another. I think, ideally, we want to have some strengths in every area of the PERMA model, but when that’s not possible, there are other ways to improve our minds.
Before I even knew about the PERMA model, I was already putting its tenets to use in my life. When I was stuck in a horrible mindset, I would paint something that had Meaning, or I would reach out to comforting Relationships in my life, or I would find an activity that Engaged my mind so I could stop thinking about all the negativity for a moment. This doesn’t always fix my mindset—in fact, it almost never does—but it does help cultivate some fledgling roots of positivity.
Emotional and psychological wellbeing isn’t a one-time trophy that you can earn and then set on the shelf, having achieved permanently GoodTM mental health. It’s more like a garden that requires planting and weeding and watering and monitoring and time. The PERMA model gives us ways to positively impact our psyches, to help us water and weed and love the garden of our minds.
Your Brain On Gratitude
One of the first positive psychologists, Chris Peterson, looked at another way to improve our minds and overall happiness: gratitude. Chris always said “Other people matter,” and he found that telling people how much they matter to you could make a huge difference, both for them and for you. Expressing gratitude helps us see good things around us, even when it feels like everything is bad. Even if you can only be grateful for the smallest, most insignificant things, that is miraculous in a way. You managed to find something so small that most people don’t even think about it, and feel gratitude. That’s wonderful.
Chris knew this, and he spread the word of the power of gratitude every chance he got, both professionally and personally. Even though he died in 2012, his legacy lives on through Write a Letter of Gratitude Day, an event that takes place every year on his birthday, February 18th. Tomorrow, take a few minutes to write a letter to someone you’re grateful for. You might be surprised at what a difference it makes, both for you and for them.