The 5 things scientists say could improve mental health

Woman looking happy. (Getty Images)
Scientists have uncovered five behaviours that could help improve mental health. (Getty Images)

Scientists have uncovered five types of activities that have been linked to good mental health when carried out on a regularly basis.

While there are a number of behaviours that could have a positive impact on wellbeing, large cohort studies in Australia and Canada uncovered five specific types of behaviour that when carried out on a consistent basis could lead to better mental health.

The Big five include having healthy thought patterns, planning for the future, engaging in meaningful activities, having healthy routines and connecting with friends and family at least four times a week.

To try to find out more about the wellbeing benefits of these behaviours a further study, published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, analysed the impact on depression and anxiety when participants reduced these activities before resuming them again.

"For those people who restricted their Big five activities by at least 25%, we saw a significant drop in mental wellbeing," study author Professor Nickolai Titov, professor of psychology at Macquarie University told MedicalXpress. "Nobody used the word 'depression,' but they all said to us, 'I'm struggling.'

"We were expecting to see a slight reduction in wellbeing, but we weren't expecting it to drop so rapidly, or for it to take as long as it did for some people to recover."

Commenting on the the findings Lisa Bruton, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) says: "We know broadly what improves mental health, but nothing brings this more to light than an innovative new study from an Australian University.

"Participants were asked to refrain from five behaviours that are proven to improve mental health, and observe the results. It suggests that much as a 'use it or lose it' approach to physical fitness, the same may be true for healthy mental health."

So what are these five every day behaviours and why might they help improve wellbeing?

Woman thinking and planning for the future. (Getty Images)
Having healthy thought patterns and planning for the future are two of the five behaviours that could impact mental wellbeing. (Getty Images)

Healthy thought patterns

Bruton says healthy thought patterns include being hopeful but realistic about oneself, others, the wider world and the future.

"They also include thinking about oneself and others with kindness and compassion," she adds.

While adopting healthy thought patterns are easier said than done – especially during difficult situations – Simon Davies, registered counsellor and walking therapist at Living Well UK says they are one of the most important factors in determining our overall mental health.

"An optimistic outlook, where you challenge negative thoughts, can help reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues," he explains.

“It’s important to treat ourselves with respect and think realistically about what we can and can’t do. Through doing this, we can improve our ability to navigate the challenges life throws at us, improve relationships with others and generally just promote our mental and emotional health.”

Bruton says mindfulness can help with this, as can journaling or therapy.

Planning for the future

Often we are told “stay in the present”, but actually planning for the future has several psychological benefits.

"Firstly, it gives us something to look forward to but it also helps us define what we want, what’s important to us, what we want to bring forth into our lives," Bruton explains.

"Reaching these goals can bring about a huge sense of achievement."

But planning for the future doesn’t mean having a five-year plan set in stone.

"What we mean is setting small, realistic and achievable goals," Davies explains. "Not only does this help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress and uncertainty, but it also provides a sense of direction and purpose making it easier to prioritise tasks and manage time effectively."

However, Davies says it is important to remember that, if things don’t follow this plan exactly, that’s fine too.

"Just having the plan there in the first place can offer that little bit of reassurance and guidance so you can deal with the unexpected events," he adds.

Woman feeling happy after exercising. (Getty Images)
Engaging in meaningful activities, such as exercising, could improve mental health. (Getty Images)

Engaging in meaningful activities

Davies says he is an avid believer in doing things you love; choose things that are going to fill your cup and make you feel good.

"Whether that’s going for a run, baking a cake, or taking yourself on a coffee date, pick meaningful activities that truly align with your interests, passions and values," he adds.

According to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic this can benefit our mental health in various ways.

"These types of activities release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, providing a natural mood boost," she explains. "They can also help connect us with others, creating a sense of belonging and community. And living a life aligned with your values not only combats feelings of loneliness but can also boost happiness levels."

Having healthy routines

Healthy routines are the building blocks of our general wellbeing.

"As human beings, we thrive on structure - routine helps us build and maintain healthy habits, which in turn improves our self-esteem and overall satisfaction," Dr Touroni explains. "The more consistently we engage in these healthy habits and routines, the better we feel and the more likely we are to stick with them."

Obviously these healthy behaviours and routines will vary person to person but Bruton says good sleep, exercise, diet and low levels of stress are all important contributors to good mental health.

While addressing these all at once might feel daunting she suggests starting with one small change in this area and building on that.

Group of friends feeling happy. (Getty Images)
Regularly meeting with friends and family can improve mental wellbeing, scientists say. (Getty Images)

Connecting with friends and family at least four times a week

Connection is a basic human need.

"We're wired to be social, and regularly connecting with friends and family fulfils this need," Dr Touroni explains.

"Socialising not only helps with managing anxiety and depression but also improves self-esteem and can even boost our immune system.

"From an evolutionary standpoint, being part of the tribe was essential for survival, and this remains true today in terms of our psychological and emotional health," she adds.

According to Bruton time shared can be casual (a walk, a brief chat), or more involved (a long meal, a cultural outing together, exercising with others).

"But the regularity allows for connections to build and buffers us against the stresses and strains of life, and also allows us to share our joys and wins!"