Review: Mental health and wellness

Mental health and wellness: what are the best ways of looking after ourselves and others?

Speaker: Libby Oakden

Our talk in June was about wellbeing and happiness. Libby started by considering why we may be unhappy and how this may be related to our biology. Why indeed, when we have many of our basic needs met, and live in a relatively well-off society where most of us are healthy and have roof over our head, are many of us unhappy? Indeed 1:4 of us have mental health problems.

Our brains are optimised for survival, and the neural circuits that are engaged when we perceive threats and future threats are really well developed: we are effectively primed to notice emotionally distressing things more than positive ones. The neural circuitry integral to this is the limbic system. As the ‘overseer’, the system exerts powerful effects on our brains and indeed our whole bodies. However, we can do things to counteract some of this negative bias in our responses, and appreciate and make more positive experiences to exercise the areas of our brain, particularly parts of the prefrontal cortex that quieten the limbic system activation.

Although psychologists throughout the 20th century knew a great deal about misery and looked for ways to cure it, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that positive psychology came to the fore. One of the leaders in this field was the American psychologist Martin Seligman. He used his inaugural speech as president of the American Psychological Society to highlight the emerging field of Positive Psychology and hoped to inspire more of his profession to seek not only to end misery in those who are mentally unwell, as Freud had suggested, but also to actively enhance wellbeing and happiness in us all.

Seligman designed the PERMA model: he identified five core elements of psychological well-being and happiness. They are P for Positive emotion, E for Engagement, R for Relationships, M for Meaning and A for Achievement. It is described in more depth at his university website here.

More recently in the UK the charity Action for Happiness has promoted a number of initiatives that may help us to be happier.

There are some simple strategies we can all take to enhance our wellbeing, that have an impact on our brain function and happiness: for instance having a good night’s sleep. Knowing we sleep in blocks of 90 minutes means that if we set the alarm for 6, 7.5 or 9 hours, we are more likely to wake up feeling refreshed.

Increasing our exercise levels also helps overall wellbeing. While there is an optimum level, even a little exercise is beneficial: just standing up and stretching every now and again is a positive step.

Another way we can improve our wellbeing lies in how we interact with others, and learning to appreciate and reinforce good experiences. For example, when we talk to others, adopting an active listening style and querying the person about what was good and how it made them feel, has positive effects both on ourselves and the person who is describing their experience. We can also reinforce the positive by writing down before we go to sleep, three things that happened that day that were positive, or listing things we are grateful for, or writing a short loving letter to someone. These writing tasks engage the prefrontal cortex, a key part of the brain that can modulate the activation of the limbic system.


Questions about the importance of human relationships and ‘hierarchy of needs’ prompted mention of the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow who pioneered humanistic psychology, which reached its peak in the 1960s. Their contemporary Erich Fromm and, from the previous century, Robert Ingersoll, were also commended.

The question of how far happiness and wellbeing depend on wealth and income was raised. It was argued that while material things matter, there is evidence that once income reaches a certain level it no longer impacts on an individual’s happiness.

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed in their book The Spirit Level that societies where the gap between rich and poor is wide, i.e. where there is greater inequality, are less happy. It is equality rather than high income which delivers wellbeing. Social geographer Danny Dorling’s book Injustice: Why social inequality persists (Bristol, Policy Press) first published in 2010 and extensively revised in 2015, plots the devastating increases in poverty, hunger and destitution in the UK in the intervening five years. And globally, the richest 1% have never held a greater share of world wealth, while the share of most of the other 99% has fallen, with more and more people in debt, especially the young.

Asad Abbas noted the risks of ‘positive thinking’ and how people have felt they were to blame for not being positive in the face of conditions like cancer. He recommended rational thinking, looking at situations in the round and being realistic about problems as well as solutions. The American psychologist Albert Ellis was a leader of rational thinking and the father of cognitive behavioural therapies.

David Smart asked how far you can be happy if you believe that human behaviour is leading to unstoppable climate change with awful consequences for humanity. He says he has to put that knowledge to one side in order to carry on.

You can find more information about positive psychology in the following books:

Ten Keys to Happier Living by Vanessa King

Positive Psychology (Introducing a Practical Guide) by Bridget Grenville-Cleave

59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman

Night School by Richard Wiseman

Useful Links

Libby Oakden studied Physiology and Pharmacology, and holds a PhD in Neuroscience. Although no longer a lab-based scientist, she has a long standing interest in mental health having studied neurophysiology anxiety in the past.