Last week has been mental health awareness week in the UK and in other parts of the world. Looking after our own psychological wellbeing is a critical task; while it is at times a challenging endeavour, it’s always beneficial. From amongst the many things that the Sahaba have given us are several pearls of wisdom that relate to protecting and improving our psychological wellbeing. Here are some of the key ideas they shared with their followers that could help us to improve our wellbeing today.
- “He who avoids complaining invites happiness” (Abu Bakr)
Psychologist Jeffrey Lohr famously likened venting anger to passing wind in an elevator; the negative impact is not only on the individual venting, but those who are subject to hearing it too. Steven Parton goes further, highlighting ways in which repetitive complaining can be bad for our psychological health. Firstly, he writes that “synapses that fire together wire together”. In layman’s terms, the more we think a thought, the more likely (and easy) it is that those thoughts occur to us again. Indulging in complaining increases the likelihood that we will complain again in future, eventually becoming something habitual; we can literally rewire our brains to be more predisposed to complaining. While complaining can at times be an adaptive way of channelling our energy, engaging in it too much can have ill effects. Parton draws from eastern philosophy to highlight the harms of complaining by way of the underlying thought behind a complaint; a refusal to accept things being the way they are. Again, this refusal can at times be a positive reaction, refusing excessively will bring about a state of always being displeased. Sometimes accepting reality and learning to be at peace with it is the healthiest thing we can do. On the point of complaining also affecting those around us, Parton talks about the mirroring of neurons, a phenomenon that leads our brains to “try out” the emotions that are being experienced by those around us. If we hear someone complaining with anger, sadness, or regret, we are likely to engage in that same emotion. While this is one of the keys to important cognitive phenomena such as empathy, being around complaints can be harmful to our well-being. Spending a lot of time with someone who is in a negative frame of mind can be testament to that. .
- “The nourishment of body is food, while the nourishment of the soul is feeding others” (Ali)
One study published in 2016 in the the psychology journal “Psychosomatic Medicine”, found that giving help to others allows us to reap huge cognitive benefits. In this study, participants were presented with different scenarios in which they either gave or received support. Using fMRI neuroimaging, the study found that individuals who gave support experienced:
- reduced stress-related activity in significant areas of the brain, such as the cingulate cortex and the right amygdala
- great levels of reward-related activity in the left and right ventral striatum
- greater caregiving-related activity in the septal area.
These cognitive benefits were found when participants were giving support, but not when receiving it. It seems that helping others is also a great help to ourselves. This is but one study that highlights the cognitive benefits of helping others. Again, I’m sure we could all testify to times when we helped others and felt a very real and distinct uplifting feeling.
- “Trust is that there should be no difference between what you do and say and what you think” (Umar)
While Umar was talking about the importance of trust here, the cognitive benefits to his advice here are also significant. Cognitive dissonance is a term used by psychologists to describe the tension that occurs when we hold two conflicting thoughts simultaneously, that can manifest itself in our engaging in a behaviour that contradicts one of these thoughts. Psychologist Leon Festinger developed the theory around this in the 1950s and it has grown in influence since then. One of the common examples used to exemplify this phenomenon is individuals who smoke despite wanting to quit, knowing the harm that it is doing to themselves. The effects of cognitive dissonance are wide ranging, with individuals engaging in different thoughts patterns to resolve the discomfort that comes with experiencing it. We can all think about to a time, or something we are currently experiencing, wherein we hold a thought but do not act on it, or act in contradiction to it. As well as undermining our self-efficacy, and in some cases, our self-worth, it can be a tiring disheartening experience. While psychologists describe means by which we try to resolve this such as trivialising the issue, the most comprehensive way to resolve this to bring our behaviours in to line with our thoughts; an individual who acts on her/his beliefs and convictions will be psychologically healthier than those who are afflicted by high degrees of dissonance.
- “Make a purpose for life, then utilize all your strength to achieve it, you would be definitely successful” (Uthman)
This gem from Uthman raises a few psychological points that are worth reflecting on. The importance of a purposeful life is something that is well known, having been discussed at length by many great minds from history, from Aristotle to al-Ghazali. Underlying this quest to know one’s purpose, one must first know oneself; taking time and effort out to reflect on this question is a valuable investment in our wellbeing. Going beyond the philosophical or spiritual importance of this, one study published in 2014 in the journal “Psychological Science” reported that having a purpose in life allowed individuals to live longer. Another study published in 2009 found that individuals with a purpose spent more time and attention dedicated to their loved ones and their communities. Psychologist Ed Diener has researched this area thoroughly and was written about another of the benefits of having a purpose; being able to handle the highs and lows of life more effectively. The capacity of for psychological resilience is viewed by many psychologists as being from amongst the most important predictors of psychological wellbeing and quality of life. Going beyond purpose, this quote also brings to attention the belief in one’s own strengths, as well as envisioning success of our goals. Influential psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term self-efficacy to describe our self-confidence and belief in our own abilities to execute a certain task. Lastly, the importance of setting goals is well established. Aimless wandering, or vague ideas, are no replacement for specific goals and have been shown to be less influential in bringing about success.