5 Steps to Better Physical and Mental Health: Step 4 - Meaning


Step 4: Meaning

For “Mental Health Awareness Week” - which this year has its focus on body image - I’m writing a daily blog describing five foundations for wellbeing and happiness. 

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, developed the PERMA model to show what we need in our lives to feel better both mentally and physically:

This week, I’ll consider how each pillar can help us to see body image in a different light and to build towards a healthier mind and way of living. There are two aspects to body image:

  1. how we think about ourselves and our bodies

  2. how others perceive us and the effect that can have on our mental state

Today, we’re talking about meaning

“Shhhhh” that noisy voice

When we experience a dip in our body image, it’s often accompanied by a noisy and unhelpful voice in our heads. It shouts various types of abuse such as “You’re no good”, “You look awful”, “You’re hopeless”, “You’re useless” and so on. Although it can be hard to quieten this voice, one way is to remember we’re part of a bigger world – it’s not just ourselves. When we start to shift the spotlight away from ourselves and towards others, there are all kinds of benefits waiting to be unwrapped. 

Why am I here? 

There may have been a point in your life when you pondered this question “Why am I here?”. It can be a tough one to answer, and research suggests our sense of meaning and purpose changes throughout our life. In our teenage years, it can feel confusing; as we edge towards adulthood, we generally report a more stable sense of meaning. But that doesn’t mean that the answer to “Why?” remains the same.


What we do tend to see from the research is that those with a stronger sense of meaning and purpose also report better physical and mental health. Some studies have shown people with a strong sense of purpose tend to sleep better, live longer and reduce their risk of depression and strokes. 


So, although there’s still plenty of unanswered questions in this area of research, we’re starting to create a picture that having a sense of meaning is important for us and our wellbeing. So, if you already feel you have a strong sense of meaning and purpose, go forth and do great things!


On the other hand, if you have no idea how to answer the question “Why am I here?”, read on.

Firstly, you’re not alone. It’s a question pondered quite regularly – and one that’s hard to answer – so be gentle with yourself. If I’m completely honest, I felt a little sheepish about writing today’s entry. What could I possibly add to the complex world of meaning and purpose? But then I remembered the fabulous words from Brene Brown, which I paraphrase in my own head as something like this:


“You gotta get in the arena. You might get your ass kicked, but your intentions are good and you’re doing something that matters to you”. 


And it does matter. I started ThinkAvellana with one big mission – to bring clinical psychology (the mountains of research I’ve come to understand and the clinical work I’ve done) to a wider audience. An audience who might be able to use the knowledge I’m sharing to help themselves and others. I feel passionately that we should all learn how to take care of our mental health, so that we can live meaningful lives. And so, in that way, meaning matters to me a great deal.

Small acts. Big Changes. 

However, creating a sense of meaning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to create a big scary goal. (Although if you want to do that, go for it). Meaning can be discovered in other ways too, like consciously deciding to do something kind for someone else. Enabling others to feel good will often make us feel good too - and it can help take our mind off our own issues and our noisy, unhelpful self-critical voice. So if it starts to bark unhelpful comments, you might like to try taking the spotlight of your attention away from it, and shifting your attention to helping someone else. 


Try it: 

Plan a small act of kindness and carry it out. Notice how it makes you feel – and see how the other person reacts.