The Three Pillars of Good Mental Health

Everybody has spent some time wondering what they need to be happy in life. What makes us happy and whole has been debated since the ancient Greeks, all the way until now. Researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand, have made a breakthrough in happiness science. Over 1100 young adults were surveyed and a handful of habits that happy people share were identified.

Three main pillars were identified regarding what makes us contented: good quality sleep, frequent exercise and increasing the amount of raw fruit and vegetables in your diet. (i)

Sleep Quality Matters More Than Sleep Quantity

The lead author of the study, Shay-Ruby Wickham, stated that sleep quality was the strongest predictor of mental health. This might sound surprising when many of us have heard sleep recommendations that focus more on the amount rather than the quality of sleep we get.

The researchers found that getting less than eight hours of sleep can be as bad for your mood as getting more than twelve hours in the group being studied. Getting too little or too much sleep was associated with more symptoms of depression and a lower sense of well-being. What mattered more, though, was the quality of sleep. Sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity for predicting a persons’ mental health and well-being. (ii)

“This suggests that sleep quality should be promoted alongside sleep quantity as tools for improving mental health and well-being within young adults,” Ms Wickham says.

Exercise Benefits Mental and Physical Health

Exercise and fitness form the second pillar for better mental health and well-being in young adults. Exercising makes your body release endorphins, which creates a feeling of euphoria and improves both mood and energy. (iii)

A previous study found that physical activity may help treat mental disorders, such as depression. (iv) Not getting enough exercise has also been linked to poorer mental well-being in young people. (v)

Although not as strong as sleep quality, physical activity appears to be a solid sign of a person’s ability to flourish. (vi)

Eat Your Way to a Happier Self

Investigators in the study said that eating more raw fruit and vegetables is very important to your mental health. Out of the 1100 people in the study, the people with the highest well-being ate four to five servings of raw fruit and vegetables per day.

In contrast, people who ate less than two servings reported far lower feelings of well-being. Having more than eight servings appears to also harm feelings of happiness and wellness.

Interestingly, the researchers found that processed fruit and vegetables do not have the same potential benefits as raw fruit and vegetables. Eating unprocessed fruit and veg also appeared to lessen some of the adverse effects of not getting enough high-quality sleep or exercise. However, the researchers point out that more evidence is needed.

Wrapping Up

Before this study, researchers looked at the relationship between mental health, sleep, exercise and diet separately. These three factors were examined simultaneously by the researchers at the University of Otago.

Unlike genetic makeup, the three pillars are behavioural and can be adjusted. This means anybody can change their sleep, exercise and diet and help contribute to their optimal well-being. Although the findings are correlations, meaning they show a link but not an exact cause, they provide us with a helpful way to look at what we can do to improve our own lives.

“We didn’t manipulate sleep, activity, or diet to test their changes on mental health and well-being. Other research has done that and has found positive benefits. Our research suggests that a ‘whole health’ intervention prioritising sleep, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake together, could be the next logical step in this research,” said senior author, Associate Professor Tamlin Conner.

If you would like to read the entire research paper, it can be found at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.579205/full#B19


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