What does it take to thrive?
There are specific areas of human psychology that underpin our potential to thrive—things like our ability to connect with others, adaptability and our sense of purpose. Every one of us has a different baseline for these areas, whether innately or as a result of our environment.
Research shows, though, that these areas can be cultivated and developed through intentional mental training. When we invest in developing these areas in ourselves, we’re building our mental fitness.
Just like building physical fitness gives our bodies the capability to function well day to day, building mental fitness creates a pool of resources we can draw on to overcome challenges and stressors, and support our resilience day to day.
Working on your mental fitness is about giving yourself the best opportunity to have optimal health and wellbeing by making a consistent and conscious effort to train your mind. While it doesn’t mean you’ll always be thriving, the regular practice you engage in can set you up to better cope with life’s challenges when they arise—and we know they always do.
The long term benefits of being mentally fit include increasing our capability to manage, recover from and even prevent episodes of poor mental health in life. The skills you develop ultimately enable you to thrive.
What is mental fitness, and what does it mean?
The term ‘Mental fitness’ is an analogy of physical fitness. Mental fitness doesn’t literally mean the brain is a muscle that can be worked out, but the concept is grounded in the idea that health—whether it’s physical or mental—can be improved by doing the right training consistently.
Physical training builds strength and increases our body’s capability to take on the physical demands of daily life. Meanwhile, intentional mental training improves our minds’ capability to manage, recover from and prevent potential mental challenges like stress, anxiety and depression.
Intentional mental training builds mental fitness.
How do we define mental fitness?
Smiling Mind defines mental fitness as our ability to perform at our best each day, navigate challenges, and support a state of positive mental wellbeing even during challenging times.
In practice, mental fitness involves consistently and intentionally developing mental resources we can draw upon to respond to setbacks, sustain healthy relationships, navigate change and uncertainty, and make effective decisions.
Mental fitness can be practised proactively, before any signs of mental ill-health arise, or at the early stages of experiencing challenges and stressors.
Research highlights several mental skills that, if practised regularly, can set us up for life-long mental health and wellbeing, and enable thriving.
Led by this research and an extensive evidence base, Smiling Mind has created a unique mental fitness framework, pulling a range of these key mental skills into five distinct areas that can be trained and developed.
Smiling Mind defines these areas as:
The ability to bring non-judgmental awareness to our thoughts and emotions, exercise attention and focus to overcome distractions, and bring an open, curious mindset to every situation.
The strength to approach situations with adaptability, manage emotions and reactions during challenging circumstances, and exercise gratitude.
The capacity to build strong, healthy relationships with ourselves and others through self-compassion and positive communication, and by approaching people with empathy, kindness and compassion.
The motivation to make meaningful contributions to the world in a way that utilises our personal strengths and aligns with our values.
The daily efforts we make to be active, and the ability to effectively step into relaxation and sleep well.
Similar to physical fitness, we expect to see the biggest impact when we develop ourselves across multiple areas—evidence specifically supports these five pillars of mental fitness.
Is mental fitness different from mindfulness?
Smiling Mind has specialised in offering mindfulness-based preventative mental healthcare for over a decade. We know, however, that this is just one tool in the arsenal designed to combat Australia’s mental health crisis.
Mental fitness is about developing a broader toolkit of skills and resources that can be drawn upon to not only overcome a range of challenges—from daily stressors to tumultuous life experiences—but to create a roadmap of preventative strategies to keep you socially, emotionally and physically well.
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 overlays each pillar of the Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework. The skills you develop through informal mindfulness specifically can supercharge the development of the broader mental fitness skillset, supporting us to achieve resilience and positive mental wellbeing.
Is mental fitness different from mindfulness?
Take a deep dive into how these two concepts intersect, and explore how informal mindfulness feeds into the focus areas that support mental fitness.
Benefits of being mentally fit
The goal of thriving in life can feel pretty lofty, especially because it’s a bit difficult to conceptualise. To make it easier to see how mental fitness skills ladder up to wellbeing, let’s break down the immediate and long term benefits of building your mental fitness.
Managing life's curveballs and challenges
|You’ll have more measured responses to challenges and conflict in your life. The flexible thinking skills you develop will help you see things from a different perspective and manage your reactions to conflict that naturally occurs in life. Flexible thinking can also help with problem solving and coping with change, which is often a cause of stress.|
Relaxation and stress management
|You’ll develop strategies to enhance your relaxation. Your ability to relax is a key factor in stress management, so these strategies can help you manage and recover from symptoms of stress.|
Self-reflection and emotional regulation
|You’ll begin to clarify and challenge the negative self-beliefs and expectations you hold using intentional self-reflection. This is your ability to analyse a train of thought with openness and curiosity rather than judgement and criticality. Intentional self-reflection is also associated with a range of wellbeing-promoting factors, like the ability to perceive social cues and effective emotional regulation.|
Healthy relationships and ability to connect
|You’ll develop strong, healthy relationships with the people around you. By enhancing social perceptions, like gratitude, you may find it easier to make friends, and your relationships will be strengthened with empathy, kindness and compassion.|
Finding your unique purpose
|You’ll discover and develop your unique purpose in life. By reflecting on your strengths and values, you’ll find it easier to learn what drives you and weave that passion into your daily life.|
Enhancing your creativity through new perspectives
|Your creativity will flourish. As you develop the skills of open-mindedness, curiosity and a beginner’s mind, you’ll gain new perspectives of the world around you. They’ll enhance your ability to think openly and creatively.|
Long term benefits
- Your increased feelings of purpose—built through a combination of your strengths, values and ability to make meaningful contributions—can support better emotional recovery from negative situations. Higher levels of purpose are associated with less emotional reactivity and increased emotional regulation.
- Your ability to intentionally self-reflect (rather than automatically self-reflect through a critical lens) will allow you to develop a more positive self-narrative. Compassionate, accepting, and growth-oriented beliefs about the self are associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher levels of wellbeing.
- The strong, positive social relationships you forge with the people around you using your connection skills will directly contribute to enhanced wellbeing and can lead to greater opportunities for social support. Positive social relationships are a key factor in healthy psychological functioning, and can even act as a buffer against depression and anxiety.
- Your improved meta-awareness (the ability to recognise when your mind is wandering and pull your focus back to the current activity) can support success in multiple areas of your life, including academic and workplace success. This directly contributes to higher levels of wellbeing.
- Your meta-awareness can also improve your ability to notice emotional cues in the mind and body, allowing you opportunities to self-regulate and recover from symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
Mental fitness isn’t something you have to do alone
The ‘fitness’ part of the concept might push forward the notion that it’s something you have to do by yourself—motivating yourself, catching yourself when you slip, and pulling yourself back on the right track. But mental fitness isn’t about relying on you and you alone.
A big part of developing your mental fitness is self-driven, but surrounding yourself with a support system is a crucial part of your mental fitness journey. We lean on our loved ones, our community and knowledgeable professionals to help us through many different situations—from physical health to career success. Mental health should be no different.
A stigma does exist in society, particularly within the realm of bettering our health, that shifts responsibility onto us as individuals. But our health—including mental health—is impacted by a range of internal and external factors, some of which aren’t in our control.
Becoming mentally fit gives us a toolkit of skills to help us recognise, manage and recover from instances of mental ill-health, regardless of the cause. But the responsibility of maintaining a positive state of wellbeing should never lie with you alone. After all, in order to thrive in life, we need to feel supported by and connected to those around us.
As a society, let’s start to normalise the idea of working on mental fitness as a part of daily life in the same way we engage in healthy physical habits, like exercise, day to day. This is especially important for children; the earlier they can learn and develop mental fitness skills, the more likely it is they’ll have a strong foundation of resilience to support them through life. This is the path towards creating sustainable, generational change in mental health and wellbeing.
As we battle a rising mental health crisis in Australia, it’s crucial to start shifting our mindset away from, “How can we effectively treat and combat mental illness?” towards, “How can we promote wellbeing in ourselves and the people we love?”
Mental fitness offers a framework for cultivating a state of wellbeing and finding a path to flourishing. It’s not just a toolkit of skills, but a call to actively think about our mental health in the same way we actively think about our physical health.
With intentional and committed practice, we can work towards not only preventing episodes of mental illness from occurring in our lives, but achieving a state of positive mental wellbeing.
Smiling Mind's free 30 day Mental Fitness Program is a great way to start your intentional mental training. Learn more about getting started on the Smiling Mind website.