Many well-being program leaders, fueled by new interest in harmonious, meaningful lifestyles, have broadened their focus from physical health to incorporate our inner workings. They include topics like mindfulness, optimism, gratitude, and connection — elements of a general state called emotional fitness. If you haven’t had much exposure to these components — which, unlike self-help fads, are grounded in science — you may wonder why they’re important and how they fit into wellness.
Here’s a breakdown:
Mindfulness is full, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This doesn’t mean being 100% distraction-free, but simply trying to be an impartial observer of arising thoughts, as well as emotions and sensations, instead of getting swept away by them. Plenty of research links mindfulness to emotional fitness,1 which can be cultivated through visualization and focusing techniques as well as simple practices like concentration on breathing.
Meditation is akin to mindfulness but is a distinctly structured activity, with a block of time set aside to be mindful while sitting still, lying down, or engaged in a deliberate form of light movement like walking or yoga. Meditation is a helpful practice, but it’s not required to experience mindfulness.
Optimism, a positive outlook about the present and the future, has been front and center in positive psychology (the study of personal traits and behaviors that lead people to thrive).2 Research confirms3 that certain activities — like acting compassionately, identifying and activating personal strengths, and imagining a successful future — enhance optimism and, ultimately, overall happiness.
Gratitude overlaps with optimism but warrants special attention because it’s such a powerful catalyst of emotional fitness. It entails conscious appreciation of what’s good in life ― like loved ones, favorite places, and prized possessions — as well as intangibles like beliefs, opportunities, and experiences.
This is another favorite subject of positive psychology, which finds that most people’s natural level of thankfulness can be increased.4 Frequently writing in a journal about 3 appreciated things is a popular way to spark gratitude.
Connection, in the context of emotional fitness, is the feeling of belonging… being part of something. Social relationships are a type of connection that takes many forms, each with its own benefits:
Having a best friend at work boosts job satisfaction by 50%5
Experiencing more “weak” social connections — like recurring encounters with acquaintances at work, at the supermarket, or in a classroom — raises the chances of a high emotional fitness level6
Belonging to more social groups is linked to higher life satisfaction7
Feeling connected to a place, a pet, or a cause also may be advantageous.
Though individual needs differ, some sort of connection helps most people flourish.
Many elements of emotional fitness don’t fit neatly into categories like mindfulness, optimism, gratitude, or connection. For example:
Managing clutter and adopting productive daily routines
Acting in a way that reflects individual values
Building resilience with skills that help us cope, bounce back, and grow in the face of stress8
Expressing creatively9 or introducing more beauty into life in the form of nature, music, or visual arts.
Solutions for Well-Being Practitioners
Emotional fitness activities, while not a substitute for professional mental healthcare, may be an answer for anyone ready to go from getting through the day to making the most of it. And employees increasingly expect these as standard wellness program offerings, on par with fitness and nutrition activities.
Just like exercise, different emotional fitness activities are best suited to different people at different times. Unfortunately, wellness leaders don’t have high-quality program options that encourage participants to test drive various activities and delve into whatever works best for them. Many currently available programs are specialized — dealing with just 1 element — rather than personalized. A program that provides mindfulness activities only or focuses on gratitude exclusively is like a gym that has only ellipticals or a chest-press machine.