Mental fitness and mindfulness are intrinsically tied. However, they’re not exactly the same. The difference is that mental fitness is an overarching goal—something we can aim to achieve through practise. Meanwhile, mindfulness is a specific area of practice that can help us achieve the goal of mental fitness.
Mental fitness is about developing a broad toolkit of skills and resources that can be drawn upon to overcome a range of challenges, ranging from daily stressors to more significant life events. It involves regular practice to build skills and proactive strategies for keeping ourselves socially, emotionally and physically well leading to greater overall mental health and wellbeing.
At Smiling Mind, we're expanding our focus to overall mental fitness as a natural expansion from mindfulness and we are excited to unpack the differences with you as we make this transition.
Mindfulness versus mental fitness
Let’s start by exploring each concept and defining what they are at their core.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement. There are two parts to this definition:
The first is the part about attention. Learning to focus attention on one thing, and being able to bring our attention back to that one thing when the mind gets distracted by thoughts or feelings, or something else in our environment. It’s the opposite of being on auto-pilot. Our mind is present and focused on our physical experiences.
The second part is about the attitude we bring to paying attention. Being open, non-judging, and curious about what we’re focusing on. This part of mindfulness is often overlooked. Being present and aware of our thoughts and feelings wouldn’t be much help if we’re feeling closed off and judgmental towards them.
Meanwhile, mental fitness is our ability to perform at our best each day, navigate challenges, and support a state of positive mental wellbeing even during challenging times.
Mental fitness is developed by learning and practising the collection of skills and factors known to build positive mental wellbeing and increase resilience. In the Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework, mindfulness is one of those skills. It helps us to create awareness around feelings, behaviours and reactions to situations we experience so that we can flexibly adapt and respond to them in an open, non-judgemental way.
The Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework
Mindfulness skills are a key factor in building mental fitness
When we look at the definitions of mindfulness and mental fitness, it’s clear why mindfulness skills are foundational in building mental fitness. Building these skills may allow us to notice when our thoughts are becoming negative or challenging, and help us better understand where those thoughts are coming from.
Being in-tune and aware of our emotional landscape allows us to recognise and respond to changes in our mental health and wellbeing.
Think about it in the context of physical health and fitness; we’re often quite attuned to changes. Visual changes, like skin colour or texture, even how we look and feel in our clothes, tend to be easy to spot. And the physical feelings in our body, like joint pain or abdominal cramps, are difficult to ignore. These signals get us thinking about what we need to do to attend to our physical health and start feeling better.
In the same way, mindfulness skills give us the opportunity to calm our mind and our body and take effective action to notice and recover from the difficulties we’re experiencing. This is why mindfulness is a key factor in building mental fitness.
You don’t need to master mindfulness in order to start building mental fitness
Although the two skillsets are very closely linked, we definitely don’t need to have mastered mindfulness in order to start working on our mental fitness.
In fact, we can practise the two simultaneously. In the context of developing mental fitness, being mindfully aware—the informal practice of mindfulness—is the key. And the benefit of that is we can (and likely already do) engage in informal mindful awareness each day.
Informal mindful awareness can be the practice of bringing our full attention back to the task we’re working on after getting distracted. Or paying attention to all of our senses as we brush our teeth in the morning instead of thinking about everything on our to-do list that day (which can sometimes kickstart feelings of stress and anxiety).
Remember, being mindfully aware doesn’t necessarily mean we’re keeping our mind focused in the present moment 24/7—that’s a massive task. Distractions will always arise that pull our minds into a maze of thoughts and feelings. But practising mindful awareness helps us to pull ourselves out of that maze.
So, we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves when we realise our mind is distracted. That realisation in itself is actually a way of practising mindful awareness.
How do the two tie in together?
In the Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework there are five pillars that ladder up to the overarching goals of mental fitness, resilience and positive mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness is one of the pillars, and the skills developed here overlay each of the other pillars. We don’t need to start with mindfulness to improve mental fitness, the skills and pillars can be developed in whatever order makes sense to our individual lives.
Let’s explore how mindfulness supports the other pillars:
The Flexible Thinking pillar is where we develop emotional management, adaptability and gratitude. Mindfulness allows us to recognise and respond to emotional cues in our mind and body. Through mindfulness, we’re better able to regulate our emotions and, importantly, choose how to respond rather than react to situations. It can also help us pull focus to those moments we’re grateful for and really stay in the present and appreciate them.
The Connection pillar is all about developing and maintaining healthy connections with others. Mindfulness helps us to bring our full attention to the conversations and interactions we have day to day. This is a cornerstone of building any strong relationship, and helps us to respond to others with empathy, kindness and compassion. Mindfulness can also help us to recognise the way we feel around others, giving us insight into which of our connections are healthy and fulfilling for us.
In the Purpose pillar, we’re defining our strengths and values and exploring ways we can make a meaningful contribution within our communities. Mindfulness can give us powerful insight into our personal values based on the way we feel in various situations. Having the ability to bring undivided attention and focus to the things we do day to day can help us realise where our strengths lie—something many of us might find ourselves glossing over in our fast-paced lives.
The Physical Health pillar is about taking care of our body, specifically in the realms of movement, sleep and relaxation. Mindfulness is a great tool for calming the mind, slowing down and finding calm in the present moment. This can help us relax after a long, busy day, and even stop our mind racing before bed so that we can sleep better.
Smiling Mind’s shift towards mental fitness isn’t a shift away from mindfulness, rather it is an extension of how to apply mindfulness through a broader toolkit of skills.
Mindfulness involves anchoring ourselves in the present moment and bringing awareness to our thoughts and emotions; the sensations we feel in the body; and the environment around us. With these skills, we can develop ourselves in areas proven to support positive mental wellbeing, resilience and mental fitness.
It's likely you’re already practising informal mindfulness to an extent in your daily life, but if you think you’d like to add some structure to it, Smiling Mind has a free 30 day Mental Fitness Program that can help to formalise your skill development.
The activities are bite-sized and easy to integrate into your daily routine. You can find out more on Smiling Mind or download the app to get started.