December 31, 2020

Skills for Emotional Well-Being

In a recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced a new framework for emotional well-being. It focuses on specific skills that can be learned. The framework is based on scientific evidence that suggests well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life.

The framework is comprised of four areas that have been studied in the lab and have been shown to improve with training:

  • Awareness, or attentiveness to your environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings;
  • Connection, or appreciation, kindness and compassion;
  • Insight, which refers to fostering curiosity and self-knowledge;
  • Purpose, understanding your values and motivations.

Awareness — and in particular meta-awareness (being aware that you’re aware) — appears to decrease stress, increase positive emotions, and can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation. Awareness helps curb some of the harmful effects of distraction, which is shown to impair cognitive function and increase stress-related responses in the body related to inflammation and aging.

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” (William James, American psychologist)

Connections with individuals and groups create physical, mental, and emotional responses that can enhance life. Through connections, you can learn by watching others.  Seeing demonstrations can create willingness to try new approaches to varied aspects of everyday life.. It is possible to achieve things in the company of others that you cannot do alone. 

Insight is being curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions. Your brain is not set. You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and “othering” that creates tension in society. Insight can be widened by exposing yourself to information that you had previously ignored.  A reliable source of increased self-awareness is structured journaling or guided autobiography writing. 

Dr. David Burns, a renowned researcher and teacher, said: “You can change the way you think about things, and you can also change your basic values and beliefs.  And when you do, you will often experience profound and lasting changes in your mood, outlook, and productivity.” (Feeling Good, 1980)

Purpose in life is a personally meaningful aim that you can apply to daily life. Having purpose seems to have positive effect not only on your mental health, but even your physical health. Studies have shown that some of the natural hormones that affect positive feelings are increased by engaging in purposeful activities.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What activities sharpen your awareness and attention?
  2. What attitudes make it easier for you to pay full attention to what is going on around you?
  3. What positive effects (physical, mental, emotional) have you noticed when you connect with people?
  4. What have you tried because you saw someone else do something?
  5. What mindset have you tried to adopt because you saw someone else’s different perspective?
  6. What new insights have you learned lately?
  7. What new mental activities have you tried lately?
  8. What is something you strongly care about?
  9. How can you advocate for, or participate in, or learn more about your strong interest?

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