There are numerous pathways to mental wellness, many of which are known to us but often seem like an impossible to-do list. In GWI’s report Defining the Mental Wellness Economy, we segment them into four broad categories: 1) activity and creativity, 2) growth and nourishment, 3) rest and rejuvenation, and 4) connection and meaning. These domains have mind-body and internal-external dimensions, although their boundaries may be blurred due to the inherently holistic and interconnected nature of wellness and wellness modalities.
Each one of us has different needs and interests when it comes to supporting our mental wellness, and many options are free or easily affordable. When we look at the diversity of possible pathways, it is clear that countless places, spaces, organizations and businesses can play a role in helping or hindering our mental wellness—from our homes, neighborhoods and cities; to our workplaces and schools; to our churches, mosques and temples; to fitness centers and grocery stores.
Activity and Creativity:
Physical activity – from walking and running, to cardiovascular exercise, to sports, dance, yoga, and martial arts – can require concerted mental engagement, can help us relax and de-stress, and can have a profound impact on our mental wellness. While there is insufficient scientific consensus as to how exactly exercise elevates mood (whether by increasing serotonin, improving sleep regulation, promoting social connection, or providing a meaningful activity or a sense of accomplishment, etc.), its beneficial impacts on our mental wellness are well-established and well-documented.[i]
Similar to our bodies, our minds need exercise in the form of play, creativity, discovery, and learning. We all have different things that interest and engage us, both in our jobs and in our leisure time. There are countless ways to stimulate our minds, to express ourselves, to be curious, to feel alive, to master new things, and to experience fun and laughter. For some people it could be reading, cooking food, making furniture, playing a board game, or listening to hip hop music; for others it could be painting, singing in a choir, fixing an appliance, writing a computer program, or doing a spreadsheet.
Growth and nourishment:
Our minds need to be nourished in order to grow. Some of the activities mentioned above (e.g., music, arts, hobbies, reading, and other intellectual or creative pursuits) can also nourish our minds and promote growth. In this category, however, we include strategies such as self-help, therapy, coaching and mentoring, and cognitive enhancement and brain training, which are all conscious and proactive efforts to support our personal development or brain health. Obviously, not everyone will feel the need to seek out self-help books, therapy, or cognitive training, but these modalities are available to those who have an interest in or a need for these kinds of proactive efforts.
On the physical side, a growing body of research has demonstrated the importance of a healthy diet and nutrition for brain health.[ii] Emerging understanding of the gut-brain axis, the microbiome, and the impacts of nutrition on neurological function/decline is creating new opportunities to nourish the brain through dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, pre- and probiotics, and polyphenols. Since ancient times, plant-based drugs (e.g., mushrooms, cannabis) have been used by humans for their mind-altering and mind-enhancing properties. New scientific research over the last couple of decades has brought renewed interest in the potential of these drugs for boosting energy, creativity, and brain performance, as well as for treating some mental disorders.
Rest and rejuvenation:
To counterbalance mental activity, creativity, and growth, our brains also need rest, recovery, and rejuvenation. Sleep is a physical process that is vitally important to our mental wellness; a lack of sleep increases our risk of developing some mental illnesses (e.g., anxiety, depression), affects our cognitive functioning, and can lead to chronic physical health conditions.[iii] In addition to their physical health benefits, mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and breathwork are believed to promote mental rest and recovery, and clinical research is increasingly demonstrating their efficacy in mitigating specific mental and physical health conditions. An ever-growing array of sensory products and experiences are available in the wellness arena and in the consumer retail space, including touch (e.g., massage, reiki, weighted blankets, fidget spinners), aroma (e.g., aromatherapy, home fragrances), sound (e.g., gong baths, white noise machines), and light (e.g., circadian lightbulbs). These products and services are rising in popularity because of a growing recognition that our senses can affect our stress levels, our ability to relax and sleep, our ability to focus, and our overall mental wellness – even though most of these have not yet been vetted by rigorous clinical studies.
Meditation and mindfulness have received the most attention in recent years as important mental wellness practices; however, the two are sometimes misunderstood and conflated. Today, there are many different types of meditation (from 2 to 23, depending on the source). The Global Wellness Summit’s Meditation Goes Plural[iv] lays out three main types of meditation: 1) focused attention (mostly associated with Vipassana meditation in the Buddhist tradition); 2) open monitoring (focused on opening awareness, and spanning many forms of mindfulness meditation and related mindfulness practices outside of meditation); and 3) self-transcending (typically using a mantra). Numerous research studies have documented the impacts of meditation on brain activity, such as accelerating or slowing certain brain waves (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Theta, and Delta) during practice. Among the documented mental wellness impacts of meditation are: reduction of the “fight or flight” response; improved cognitive function, better focus, and higher creativity; and improved neuroplasticity in long-term practitioners. The concept of mindfulness initially spun out of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s efforts to bring Buddhist meditation to medicine and a Western, secular audience in the 1970s-1980s. Today, mindfulness is viewed more as a quality, an awareness, or a way of living rather than a “practice” like meditation. Mindfulness can be cultivated through formal practices like meditation (including “mindfulness meditation”) or therapy (such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), as well as informally in our daily lives (mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful conversation, mindful parenting).[v]
Connection and meaning:
Internally, connection means being grounded in a deeper and more profound sense of purpose beyond our physical existence and our individual, biological instincts for survival. Many people find connection and meaning through religious and spiritual practices; studies have repeatedly shown that people who actively practice a religion have a higher sense of well-being and happiness.[vi] Faith practices help take our focus off ourselves, while putting our lives and experiences into a larger context. The practices of gratitude, altruism, and compassion, while rooted in many world religions, can also be pathways to happiness and well-being in an agnostic sense. Studies have shown that altruism – elevating the well-being of others, or serving and helping others – contributes to individual resilience and happiness, even during times of hardship.[vii]
Externally, the sense of being connected to other people, and to the broader world, is intrinsic to our mental wellness. Unfortunately, loneliness and social isolation have been recognized by global public health organizations as having reached epidemic proportions, a development further aggravated by COVID-19.[viii] In addition to connections with friends, family, and other people, studies have shown that being close to nature, pets, and living things can have a therapeutic effect on us, helping to reduce negative emotions, promoting calmness of the mind, and even aiding in physical healing.[ix] Civic engagement and volunteering give us an avenue to contribute to our community and society, and empower us to effect change in the world around us, and have also been shown to have positive effects on our health and well-being.[x]
See the full GWI report for more information on the segments and developments in the $121 billion mental wellness economy.
III. Personal Agency Versus
[i] For a summary discussion of physical movement in relation to mental wellness, see: Bodeker, G. (2018). Movement. In G. Bodeker (Ed.), Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons (pp. 60-68). Miami, FL: Mental Wellness Initiative, Global Wellness Institute. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/GWI-MWI-WhitePaper2018.pdf.
[ii] For a summary discussion of diet and nutrition in relation to mental wellness, see: Bodeker, G., and Hoare, B. (2018), The Gut-Brain Axis; and Bodeker, G. (2018), Nutrition and the Brain. In G. Bodeker (Ed.), Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons (pp. 30-32 and 33-37). Miami, FL: Mental Wellness Initiative, Global Wellness Institute. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/GWI-MWI-WhitePaper2018.pdf.
[iii] See, for example: 1) Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School (2019, March 18). Sleep and mental health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health. 2) Kilgore, W.D.S. (2010). Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition. Progress in Brain Research, 185, 105-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00007-5.
[iv] McGroarty, B. (2019). Meditation Goes Plural. 2019 Global Wellness Trends. Miami, FL: Global Wellness Summit. https://www.globalwellnesssummit.com/2019-global-wellness-trends/meditation-goes-plural/.
[v] See: 1) Eisler, M. (2019, Aug. 27). What’s the Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness? Chopra. https://chopra.com/articles/whats-the-difference-between-meditation-and-mindfulness. 2) Schultz, J. (2019, Jan. 9). 5 Differences Between Mindfulness and Meditation. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/differences-between-mindfulness-meditation/.
[vi] See, for example: 1) Villani, D., et al (2019, July 9). The Role of Spirituality and Religiosity in Subjective Well-Being of Individuals With Different Religious Status. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1525. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01525. 2) Jackson, B.R., and Bergeman, C.S. (2011, May 1). How Does Religiosity Enhance Well-Being? The Role of Perceived Control. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 3(2), 149-161. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021597. 3) Pew Research Center (2019, Jan. 31). Religion’s Relationship to Happiness, Civic Engagement and Health Around the World. https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2019/01/Wellbeing-report-1-25-19-FULL-REPORT-FOR-WEB.pdf.
[vii] See, for example: 1) Post, S.G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327558ijbm1202_4. 2) Post, S.G. (2014, June). It’s Good to Be Good: 2014 Biennial Scientific Report on Health, Happiness, Longevity, and Helping Others. https://unlimitedloveinstitute.org/downloads/ITS-GOOD-TO-BE-GOOD-2014-Biennial-Scientific-Report-On-Health-Happiness-Longevity-And-Helping-Others.pdf. 3) Xi, J., et al (2016, Feb. 17). Altruism and Existential Well-Being. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 12, 67-88. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-016-9453-z.
[viii] McGroarty, B. (2020, May). Resetting the World with Wellness: Human Connection in a Time of Physical Distancing. Miami, FL: Global Wellness Institute. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/industry-research/resetting-the-world-with-wellness/.
[ix] See, for example: 1) White, M.P. (2019, June 30). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9, 7730. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3. 2) Chowdhury, M.R. (2020, Aug. 9). The Positive Effects of Nature On Your Mental Well-Being. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/positive-effects-of-nature/. 3) Van den Bosch, M. (2017, March 29). Natural Environments, Health, and Well-Being. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.013.333.
[x] See, for example: 1) Piliavin, J.A., and Siegl, E. (2015, May). Health and Well-being Consequences of Formal Volunteering. In D.A. Schroeder and W.G. Graziano (Eds.). Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior (pp. 494-523). New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399813.013.024. 2) Nelson, C., et al (2019). Examining Civic Engagement Links to Health. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RR3163.