Beginning your mental health journey? Want to be happier and healthier and curious where to start? Well, you’re in luck! In this post, we’ll discuss the pillars of well-being.
The pillars of well-being are areas of your life where you can make investments that will make you happier. There are potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of areas of your life you could make changes that would make you happier, but the pillars of well-being are the most leveraged. In other words, they will give you the most “bang for your buck.” They have the highest “return on investment” of your attention, time and effort. Invest a little energy in making changes in the pillars, and you will see big rewards.
In this post, we’ll give an overview of all of them. However, don’t try to work on them all at once. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do. Just read through this guide, see which areas you most want to work on, and focus on one at a time for three weeks. After three weeks of focusing on one pillar and making changes in your life, move on to the next. Keep doing what makes you happier and discard the rest. Experiment! Tinker. Become happier.
Pillar #1: Exercise
Exercising makes people happier. If you want to experience a happier life, developing a regular exercise routine should be your #1 priority. Exercise alleviates the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It staves off disease and cognitive decline. So long as one isn’t injuring oneself or putting oneself at risk medically, exercise can improve anyone’s life.
Different forms of exercise provide different benefits. Cardiovascular workouts like running and biking help people improve their heart health, extend their lifespan and lift their mood. Resistance training workouts like lifting weights and calisthenics build muscle and have a powerful anxiety-reducing effect. Even something as simple as taking a long walk helps people feel happy, relaxed and clear-headed.
You can work out in a group or alone. You can work out first thing in the morning, on your lunch break or when you get home from work. You can play basketball in the local park with your friends or join a yoga studio. The key is to find a type of exercise (or multiple types) that you enjoy and you actually want to do. Then, try to do that exercise three to six days out of the week. Start small, maybe only a few minutes of low-intensity exercise once per week, and work up from there! Generally work to keep your workouts longer than twenty minutes but less than an hour (of course, if you have a lot of experience exercising you can do more than one hour, but beware injury from repetitive stressing of the body. If you do work out a lot, switch up which body parts and movements you do a lot).
The key with exercise is to keep it short and enjoyable. Don’t waste time doing workouts you don’t enjoy or doing things longer than you want to. Find exercises you like that will keep you coming back for more. If you think, “But, I don’t like exercise.” That’s fine too! Perhaps you just haven’t found the right type yet. Take a karate class. Go dancing. Go rock-climbing. Take a scenic bike route. Get creative to get moving! Make a workout playlist of high energy songs. Make it enjoyable! And now onto the next seven pillars of well-being.
Pillar #2: Sleep
Adults are healthiest and happiest when they get 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night. The keys to getting that sleep each night are generally these:
- Routine! Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. In practice, this is difficult, but the more often you can do it, the better the body can develop a good rhythm of sleep.
- Darkness! Ninety minutes before you want to fall asleep, begin to reduce the amount of light in your environment. Turn off most of the lights and stop looking at all screens (phones, computers, tablets, televisions… stop looking at any screen that emits light!). The low light is a signal to your brain that it’s time to start winding down. The brain thinks the sun is going down and it’s time to sleep. Instead of looking at screens, do a winding down activity: take a hot shower, take a bath, read a book, listen to a podcast, color. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you’re in a dark environment not looking directly into light! Six more pillars of well-being to go.
- Chill out! Sixty minutes before you want to fall asleep, allow your body to cool down. Shed some layers of clothing and turn the AC to 66 degrees Fahrenheit (or some cool temperature you find comfortable). Your brain feels your body cooling down and again thinks that means it’s night time. (A fun trick is to take a very hot shower or bath ninety minutes before bed and then let the body cool down after that. The body takes cooling down as a signal that it’s time to sleep soon.)
- Switch to decaf! Reduce or eliminate caffeine intake. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate and sodas. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain which the body uses to help humans fall asleep. The body can only slowly eliminate caffeine. Twelve hours after taking caffeine, one quarter of the caffeine is still circulating in your bloodstream. So after 10AM or noon, switch to decaf. People’s tolerances to caffeine vary widely. Some people can’t have any caffeine at any point in the day and hope to fall asleep that night. Others can drink three cups of coffee before bed and fall asleep immediately (though, studies show that will generally reduce sleep quality for those individuals). The key takeaway is, if you’re struggling to sleep try reducing and eliminating caffeine for a week and how your sleep changes.
- Get some sun! People who have regular exposure to sunlight during the morning and daytime sleep better because the sunlight regulates the body’s circadian rhythm. The body and brain know it’s daytime and they know that later on it will be night.
- Meditate! Many people struggle to sleep because their racing mind won’t leave them alone. Learning to meditate can change one’s relationship to thoughts and consequently allow them to sleep more soundly. Many people meditate before bed to calm down their racing minds. Try a popular app like Headspace or Healthy Minds to learn how to train attention and change your relationship to thoughts.
- Avoid alcohol, nicotine and cannabis! Alcohol and cannabis (weed) might make you fall asleep faster, but they destroy sleep quality. Nicotine makes it harder to fall asleep and hurts sleep quality. Stop drinking alcohol, taking nicotine, or smoking/eating cannabis six or so hours before bed as many nights as you can.
Pillar #3: Nutrition
If you want to be happy it's essential to avoid eating unhealthy foods and to eat healthy ones. (Accessibility note) Food is your body’s fuel. If you put bad fuel into the gas tank of a car, it won’t run correctly. If you put bad fuel into your body, your body and brain won’t run correctly. How do you know what unhealthy foods are and what healthy ones are? Here’s some general guidelines for what healthy foods are:
- Leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, meats
- Low in sugar and carbohydrates, high in protein and/or fiber
- Minimally processed: low or no oil, no refined or added sugar, no artificial ingredients, only a few ingredients.
And here are some general guidelines for what unhealthy foods are:
- Sugary beverages, candy, Baked goods, white bread, pasta, white rice, fried foods, alcoholic drinks
- Most fast food
- Foods with long ingredients lists on the packaging
- Foods with many artificial ingredients
- Foods/drinks with artificial sweeteners
Two habits to develop: eating natural foods and reading ingredients lists.
Try to eat as much of your diet from the healthy list as possible. If you’re eating a lot of fast food or unhealthy food and you’re thinking, “This is too hard. I like what I eat and I hate healthy food or just don’t like it as much as what I eat,” I have some advice for you; start small and try to introduce one salad into one meal each day. Try to include a variety of the many healthy foods mentioned in the list above. If you don’t like healthy foods, force yourself to eat a little of them for a few weeks. Studies show people grow to like the foods they eat often so your tastes will change with time and effort. Over time, you will start to like your salads more and more. At that point, try to introduce them more and more into more meals. You can put meat into salads. Try to use balsamic vinegar as a dressing and fruits like raisins to sweeten it.
Pillar #4: Social Connection
The Harvard Men’s study (a study that began in the 1930s that followed men from Harvard and a separate group of working class men from Boston around for their whole lives) had a very surprising conclusion: the happiest, healthiest and longest living people were those that had the most number of close personal relationships.
So, if you want to be healthy, live a long time and be happy during that time, try to cultivate close personal relationships. If you’re an introvert, focus on cultivating only a few very good relationships. If you’re an extrovert, focus on cultivating many good relationships. If you get along with your family well, change your schedule such that you’re spending as much time as possible with them. If you don’t get along with your family, focus your energy on making and keeping close personal friends. If you struggle socially (you’re not good at making friends) invest in learning social skills (read a book, work with a therapist) and finding people who are like you that you can most easily connect with. Go to events surrounding activities you like. Make friends with people who like what you like. Even having relationships with pets like cats and dogs can make one happier. Connect with beings! Connect in healthy ways. Be kind. Give love and you will receive love.
If you find yourself in constant conflict with your friends/family/co-workers, invest in learning about how to healthily relate to people. Do research, read some books on the topic and work with a therapist to improve your skills.
Try, fail. Learn. Try, succeed, fail, succeed. Learn. Experiment! Have good relationships! It’s been said, “The quality of your life comes down to the quality of your relationships.” If you don’t have relationships, cultivate some. If your relationships are strained, learn to make them healthier and more harmonious.
Now we move on to the back half of the pillars of well-being.
Pillar #5: Spirituality and Philosophy
Religious people are happier than non-religious people on average. People who feel connected to something larger than themselves are happier than people who feel disconnected generally.
If you’re not religious or spiritual, read books on philosophy or attend meet-ups of humanitarians. Find some way of acting and being in the world that you find resonates with your values. Try a secular breath-based meditation app! Find books and movies that help you connect with your deepest values. Go to an art museum. Find artists who send out messages that you resonate with and connect with their art
If you’re Christian, go to Church, one whose views you agree with (as much as possible). Pray! Try to live like Jesus. If you’re Jewish, go to synagogue. Pray! Read scripture. And so on!
Do that which calls deeply to you.
Pillar #6: Service
In a famous study, when scientists gave one group of people $100 to go out that day and spend on themselves and another group of people $100 to go out that day and spend on others, they found the group that spent their money on others was happier at the end of the day than the group that spent it on themselves.
Spend your time and money improving the lives of people in the world. Donating to high impact charities can do the most good abstractly, but will feel less real. Your human brain evolved to feel good helping people in-person. So, do both. Donate your money to help people and volunteer your time and money to help people nearby in your community. Pick up litter, volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, give blood.
Gandhi famously said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Lose yourself in the service of others.
Only two more pillars of well-being to go.
Pillar #7: Nature
Humans mostly evolved in natural environments near big bodies of water and lots of greenery. Our bodies and minds flourish better the closer to those environments we can get. That means the more time one spends near the ocean, a lake, a river, a forest, a jungle, a mountain range, etc. the happier one’s mind and body will be.
One scientific study found that hospital patients who had trees outside their window healed from their ailments faster than similar patients with similar ailments who didn’t have trees outside their windows.
So, take a walk in the woods. Sit by the ocean. Buy some house plants. Plan a vacation to a national park. Even little exposure to plant-life in the densest city can have a calming and nourishing effect.
Pillar #8: Processing, Healing and Growth
Each of us is like a ship. And each ship is weighed down by its cargo. We all have cargo weighing us down. We either are born with it, or someone or something puts it on us as we are drifting along. We might have difficult relationships with our caregivers growing, we may have experienced trauma, we may have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, etc. Whatever it is, we all have some unsettled parts of our psyche. We have issues that are calling for our attention. We know this because when we try to meet our needs, when we try to do things in life, these patterns within us get in the way and stop us. We want romantic connection but we find we sabotage each relationship for reasons we don’t understand. We try to advance in our careers, but are pulled back down by self-doubt. We just try to live a normal life and we are paralyzed by anxiety and depression.
If this sounds like you, it’s time to focus on processing, healing and growth. We need to process our untold stories, heal from our wounds, and grow from and through our pain. There are many strategies for each of these. Some popular and effective ones include the following: seeing a talk therapist once a week to work through your struggles and acquire new skills and outlooks, developing a meditation practice that allows one to get in touch with the wounded parts of oneself, journaling every evening for a while stream-of-conscious style and pouring the psyche out onto the page, creating artwork like a song or painting that represents the difficult emotions one feels or situations one experiences. Try a few different methods and see what works for you! The more you process, heal and grow the more you can start to live a more fulfilled, meaningful and joyful life.
So there you have it, those are the pillars of well-being. After reading through them, see which ones seem the most obvious starting places. If you see you want to see a therapist, then schedule an intake with a few of them and pick one you like. If you feel you want to start working out, watch some youtube videos with influencers/trainers you might want to emulate. But whatever you do, pick a pillar or a few and invest some time and effort into working it into your life and you will see benefits! Wherever you are is the perfect place to start.
At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a mindfulness therapist. If you prefer talking to a mindfulness therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
- Ocean City Therapy Office
360 West Ave, Floor 1, Ocean City, NJ 08226
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233 S. 6th Street, C-33, Philadelphia PA 19106
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- Telemedicine: We have therapists who are licensed to work in Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.
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