Why Do We Live and How to Live Better?
Why do we live? Some would answer that it is success, legacy, love, learning or happiness. Whatever one answers, whatever their goals, aspirations or reasons for living there is a central theme that underpins every aspect of being alive. Well-being.
I believe nothing else is possible in life without accounting for well-being, as it is not as simple as “Am I happy?” but it’s also “Can I function?” “Can I live?”. If one is at high risk for suicide, or their anxiety brings about frequent immobilising emotional distress, the pursuit of success, legacy, love, learning, or happiness may seem like an insurmountable task. In summary, well-being is “ a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.” (APA Dictionary of Psychology 2014).
With all that being said, we in the lab regularly dedicate ourselves to examining questions related to well-being, cognition, and aging. So I have had the pleasure of scouring the papers with the hope of reframing the idea of well-being, underpinning its importance and presenting some suggestions to help maintain it.
The Importance of Well-being
I. A Longer Life
If my truisms were not enough to persuade, that’s okay, we’ll get empirical! Chida and Steptoe (2008) conducted a meta-analysis across 35 studies with samples from initially healthy populations and 35 studies with samples from populations of individuals with illness. They examined whether positive well-being has an effect on mortality at a population level. The researchers found that positive affect (things like positive mood, joy, and happiness) and positive traits (things like high levels of optimism and hope) were both associated with reduced mortality in the samples of healthy participants. They also found that positive well-being was associated with lower death rates among those individuals with renal failure or HIV infection.
II. A More Successful Life
It doesn't end there though! Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener (2005) found that happiness or positive subjective well-being precedes success. Now if the possibility of a longer life hasn't generated sufficient investment in the importance of well-being, perhaps the possibility of a better life will?
Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005) found that individuals with positive subjective well-being were more likely to finish their education, find more autonomous jobs, perform better on job evaluations, have a larger, more fulfilling social network, sustain longer relationships and more.
Furthermore, they found that the relationship was bidirectional. Meaning, it essentially creates a positive feedback loop, in which positive subjective well-being increases the likelihood of being able to achieve the goals one’s been socialized to believe as worthwhile, and achieving said goals further leads to PSW.
So, how to do it? Well, the premier suggestion is regular mindfulness practice/exercise! There is a large body of research examining the impact of mindfulness interventions on well-being. In a recent study, Marenus et al. (2021) found that college students who were randomized to engage in 30-minute yoga-based practices with short mindfulness meditations twice a week for eight weeks showed a significant increase in psychological well-being and physical activity compared to a control group. The physical activity required by the program was stated to be low, so Marenus and colleagues found that mindfulness training inspired the pursuit of independent physical activity.
An important component of this study was that it took the COVID-19 environment into account so the intervention was administered online. There are numerous such programs available online, paid and or free. Mindful.org is a great resource that provides an overview of free different mindfulness applications that you may find helpful in your pursuit of enhanced mindfulness.
Of course, there were other ways to increase well-being but mindfulness-based interventions are one of the most strongly supported. Not only were they the most strongly supported, but they promote an increase in several other correlates of well-being, such as non-reactivity, acceptance, physical activity, self-awareness, mental health outcomes, etc. (Gu et al. 2016).
So with all that being said, I’d like to ask you, as I’ve been asking myself for the better part of five years, can you take better care of yourself? Can you be happier, or more content? If so, don’t you owe that to yourself? Lastly, but most importantly, how do you do all this? What I have suggested is by no means the end of the journey to a life worth living, but it is a significant step in the right direction.
We at the lab will be attempting this journey with you if you’d like to join. As someone who’s struggled with mental health for many years, I hope there’s some comfort in the recognition that you might not be alone. Should you or someone you know need it, here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In my experience, harkening back to the central question of this post, a question that's permeated every aspect of my life thus far has always provided me with some solace. Why do we live? Why do you live?
APA Dictionary of Psychology. 2014. “APA Dictionary of Psychology.” Apa.org. 2014. https://dictionary.apa.org/well-being.
Chida, Yoichi, and Andrew Steptoe. 2008. “Positive Psychological Well-Being and Mortality: A Quantitative Review of Prospective Observational Studies.” Psychosomatic Medicine 70 (7): 741–56. https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e31818105ba.
Gu, Jenny, Clara Strauss, Rod Bond, and Kate Cavanagh. 2016. “Corrigendum to ‘How Do Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Improve Mental Health and Wellbeing? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Mediation Studies’ [Clinical Psychology Review 37 (2015) 1–12].” Clinical Psychology Review 49 (April): 119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.09.011.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Laura King, and Ed Diener. 2005. “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” Psychological Bulletin 131 (6): 803–55. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803.
Marenus, Michele W., Andy Murray, Kathryn Friedman, Julia Sanowski, Haley Ottensoser, Ana Cahuas, Varun Kumaravel, and Weiyun Chen. 2021. “Feasibility and Effectiveness of the Web-Based WeActive and WeMindful Interventions on Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being.” Edited by Zan Gao. BioMed Research International 2021 (October): 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/8400241.
Newman, Kira M., and Janet Ho. 2021. “Five Free Mindfulness Apps Worthy of Your Attention.” Mindful. March 12, 2021. https://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/.
NHS. 2019. “5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing.” Nhs.uk. November 6, 2019. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 2019. “National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.” Suicidepreventionlifeline.org. 2019. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.