Skip to main content

We can find advice for how to improve our mental wellbeing everywhere these days. It can be found in leaflets at the doctor’s office, in advertisements claiming to have the latest quick fix, and on social media. But what really is wellbeing and how do we get it?

We sometimes confuse wellbeing with happiness, or some kind of lasting feeling of comfort. However, these outcomes can be unrealistic to strive for in the longer term. Sure, you may be able to practice techniques that give you a sense of happiness or comfort there and then, but in the longer term, life is full of ups and downs for us all.

With the way our brains work and the continuously changing circumstances we find ourselves in, we will go through both good and more difficult times in our lives which includes a whole spectrum of emotions in an ongoing and unpredictable flow of time and events. Therefore, if we aim to be happy or comfortable all the time, we are setting ourselves up for failure and struggle.


Wellbeing Is A Toolkit: Develop Your Toolkit To Flexibly Deal With The Ups And Downs Of Life 


What would be a more helpful way to think about wellbeing?


Emotions are natural, and we experience them for a reason. They are there to help us, even when it feels like they are working against us and all we want is to get rid of them or replace them with more comfortable ones. Realising this is part of the answer to the questions above because it is not the absence or presence of different emotions that determine our wellbeing, it is the tools we use to deal with them and the attitude we have towards them.

For example, someone who is feeling down may use the tool ‘self-isolation’ to cope. They isolate themselves at home on the sofa, doing as little as possible.

Another person might do the same, but adding the tool ‘self-soothing’, and spend their time at home with some pleasant music, a nice blanket, and a cup of tea. A third person may pick up the tool ‘behavioural activation’, in which case they go out to see some friends or take steps to do some physical activity that they have enjoyed in the past.




Different people will have different tools in their toolbox and each person will have their own unique experience of the same tools. It is therefore not a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to taking care of one’s wellbeing. However, there are some general principles and techniques that have been shown to be useful for many, which I will exemplify further down.

Before thinking about adopting new tools, it is usually helpful to become aware of the ones you are already using. Some example questions you can ask yourself to start exploring current tools are listed below.

  • How do I react when I feel afraid?
  • How do I treat myself when I feel sad?
  • How do I talk to myself with my inner voice?
  • Which ones of these are helpful to me and which ones are not?

With this in mind, we may want to pause for a moment before jumping to conclusions about which tools would be more helpful. Finding helpful tools is not always straightforward and never perfect.

For example, one might say that using the tools ‘taking some time out and doing some deep breathing’ is a great way to deal with anxiety. It is likely to work as a way of relieving the anxiety there and then, yes, but what if you will have to face the situation again and again? Maybe the tool ‘facing and overcoming the fear’ might work better?

Sometimes our emotions are trying a bit too hard to make us avoid a situation, even when the situation is not dangerous. We then have to demonstrate to our mind that it can safely lower its guard.

When we let emotions like anxiety drive us to avoid things, it’s like telling the anxiety ‘I was safe because you made me avoid the situation’. At such times, it can be more helpful to confront the anxiety and stay in the situation until the anxiety realises that it is not needed and can let go of its hold a bit.

The same complexity often comes with managing other emotions and the tools we use to deal with them, and it can therefore be useful to make a note of what seems to work and what doesn’t. As self-awareness grows and tools for dealing with one’s experiences are sharpened, confidence is likely to follow. With such confidence comes opportunities for a fuller and freer experience of one’s life.


Are there any pointers toward where to start?


In general, increasing one’s emotional awareness, having multiple different tools ready to hand, and being brave while faced with difficult emotions can be helpful. Emotional awareness just means noticing what emotions you are experiencing.

This can be practiced by regularly checking in with oneself about how you are feeling; ‘How am I feeling right now?’, ‘What is my response to how I am feeling?’, and ‘How does that work out for me?’ This may be experienced as frightening at first, as we sometimes try to avoid taking such an honest and direct look at ourselves. However, it is important to remain brave and voluntarily take the necessary steps into the unknown.




How To Develop Wellbeing Tools 


Here are some general principles that might help as guides to developing one’s wellbeing tools. 


1) Comfort is not the goal
  • It is nice to be comfortable sometimes for sure. However, if we put too much emphasis on seeking comfort this can lead us down a path of inactivity, passive attention to entertainment, and indulgence in things that feel good there and then but do not serve us in the long term.
  • Instead of seeking comfort it can be helpful to seek meaning in the struggle and effort. Choosing one’s discomfort can lead to positive feelings if you see the struggle as meaningful. For example, if you value health for yourself and those around you, a meaningful struggle can be to engage in exercise and healthy eating, and inspiring others to do so too.
  • In the same way, one who values knowledge and wisdom can find meaning in the struggles around studying, one who values money can find meaning in grinding at a job, and one who values relationships can find meaning in the effort that needs to be made to maintain them. Life is not always comfortable but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, in relinquishing our desires to be comfortable in the short term, we can find meaning and growth in the long term.
2) Voluntarily confronting and overcoming anxiety leads to confidence
  •  This is an essential principle for dealing with anxiety. If one is afraid of spiders (non-poisonous ones), the continued avoidance of spiders will communicate to one’s mind ‘I am safe because I avoided the spider’, ‘the spider was dangerous’, ‘I am vulnerable to spiders.’
  • On the other hand, if one feels anxious while facing a spider and despite the feeling approaches and stays with the spider long enough, the anxiety will eventually go away. This communicates to one’s mind ‘I am safe even when I’m with the spider’, ‘These spiders are not dangerous’, and ‘I am able to deal with spiders.’ By doing this in situations that trigger anxiety we increase our confidence in our ability to deal with the world, which reduces the crippling effects of anxiety.
3) Activity lifts mood
  • When we feel low in mood, we typically feel less motivated to engage in activities, and even if we do, we struggle to get the same enjoyment from them that we would in a better mood. However, inactivity is likely to lower the mood further and prevent change.
  • As a rule of thumb, therefore, when one’s mood is low it can be helpful to engage in activities that would otherwise have given enjoyment, notably in a gradual and achievable way. This should improve one’s mood at least to some extent, which can lead onto an upward path of continued improvement.
4) Embracing grief
  • When we grieve, whether it’s due to the loss of a loved one or having moved away from a cherished home, our minds need to adjust to the change in our world. This is a difficult process for anyone going through it and it can include a range of difficult emotions.
  • Although denial of what’s happened, as well as how one feels about it, is a natural part of grief, the process needs to take place eventually. Embracing grief involves acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, treating oneself with compassion, and allowing time and space to go through the process without too much avoidance.
5) Self-compassion is more useful than self-criticism
  • Many of us fall into the trap of using self-criticism as a drive to do better when we are struggling. This may work to some extent in practical terms, but it also leads us to experience more negative emotion than we need to. Self-compassion is an alternative force to help us move forward and get through difficult times.
  • An analogy to illustrate could be the following: You stumble and fall to the ground and say to yourself ‘you stupid fool!’ This way you may rise feeling angry and frustrated with yourself, which can be energy draining and  inhibit our performance in other parts of our day. It can be more helpful to instead react by saying to yourself ‘don’t worry, everyone falls from time to time, and when we do, all we can do is to get back on our feet and learn from it.’
  • In the latter case you may get back on your feet feeling hurt but alright, and perhaps even noticing the silver lining that you have become more aware of what makes you stumble and are therefore less likely to do so again. This will likely leave you with more energy than the former scenario and you are therefore more likely to do better in the rest of your day.
6) Gratitude is a gateway to happiness
  •  When we look at people across different walks of life, we see quickly that their level of happiness is not determined by what they have. It is however closely linked to the amount of gratitude they feel for what they have. This is why practices such as mindfulness, which teaches you to appreciate your experiences in the present moment, have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.
7) Relationships are complicated and essential
  • Relationships are hard sometimes, and some people form healthy relationships with more ease than others. However, having, or at least knowing that one is doing one’s best to nourish, relationships with others is closely linked to wellbeing.


The Bottom Line


As you can see, this text does not go into depth about any of the many topics it mentions. It is best used as a guide towards what you want to learn more about. You can look up the various terms and concepts in the text to find further information on YouTube.

It is probably also worth mentioning the books ‘Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before’ by Julie Smith, ‘The Compassionate Mind’ by Paul Gilbert, and ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harriss, all of which offer evidence-based tools to improve one’s wellbeing.

Was this article helpful?
Dr Erlend Slettevold

Dr Erlend Slettevold is a Clinical Psychologist at The Oak Tree Practice. His qualifications include Psychology BSc, Psychology MSd and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.