Hacking The Connection Between Mental Health And Behavior

How To Feel Better & Be Happy By Pursuing Behavior Change For Health

Mental Health

The Link Between Mental Health And Behavior Is Real

The bottom line is: understanding the connection between mental health and behavior and what behavior changes you can make to feel better are both critical to being happy.

We’ve known for a long time that action is the fastest way to change emotions (which is why the go-to prescription for depression in the past was to “go for a walk,” “get some fresh air,” or “get out and socialize”) [1].*

That’s because there’s a strong, measurable, life-long link between mental health and certain behaviors. That includes physical and social activity, eating habits, risk-avoidance, and the different things we do to cope with emotional and mental health challenges.


So What Is “Behavior Change For Health”?

Behavior change for health is just doing things differently — whether it’s spending your time differently, eat differently, hanging out with more or different people, or changing your mindset — to feel better, be happy, or otherwise attain, regain, or maintain better health. Because the relationship between mental health and behavior lasts your whole life, behavior change for health isn’t really a one-time project. Instead, it’s more of a continuous process of making little adjustments to what you’re doing and how you’re living based on what’s going on in your life and how you’re feeling.


Why Does It Matter?

When we talk about “behavior change” in general — and especially behavior change for health — we generally only talk about it in the intentional sense: how people purposely do things differently to accomplish this or that outcome (usually because we want to feel better about something). Maybe you adopt new eating habits to help with fitness goals, for example, or buy a reusable water bottle and join a carpool to help reduce your carbon footprint.

But we don’t often stop to recognize all the little behavior changes we adopt without really noticing — that sometimes do not make us feel better — when the economy, technology, and/or what’s popular moves in a new direction. The thing is, these unintentional behavior changes aren’t always for the best (or even the better), so, today, many of the things that are newly normal aren’t particularly good for anybody’s mental health.

As a result, happiness is on the decline, and there are more people wondering how to be happy every day [2].

How To Be Happy: The Best Bad Habits To Start With

  1. Doing Too Little Physical Activity: Physical activity impacts mental health more than most other behaviors. When it comes to learning how to be happy, a good first step is usually to take more steps! That’s because your activity-level is both a contributing and controlling factor for many mental health challenges and for emotional distress [3].
  2. Poor Posture & Forgetting To Laugh/Smile: It might sound crazy, but how you hold your body and your face can have some seriously significant effects on your mental health. Having poor posture or going the day without smiling/laughing can make the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders worse [45]. That’s because both behaviors impact your body’s stress response and how you hold and release tension, so improving both is a good tool for how to be happy.
  3. Poor Sleep, Imbalanced Diet, & Other Poor Physical Health Behaviors: A good rule-of-thumb is that eating a balanced diet (with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains) can make you feel better [6]. Doing the opposite does the opposite! Likewise, sleep deprivation and poor sleep don’t just make you feel bad the day after — they can lead to/exacerbate the symptoms of many mental health challenges [7]. The same can be said for most health behaviors [8].
  4. Spending Too Much Time Alone & Codependency: Codependency and isolation are two very-closely-related sides of the same coin, since both have to do with how your relationships can make you feel better (or worse). In the case of being isolated, it’s a fairly straightforward behavior change for health: build more meaningful connections with other people, and you’ll feel better [9]! But make sure those connections are with the right other people. Codependency — relationships where you place someone else’s desires over your own needs — can lead to unhealthy choices when it comes to activity, sleep, diet, and other physical health behaviors, as well as isolation [10].
  5. Having A Failure Mindset Or “Negative Perfectionism”: Having a failure mindset means you believe that you cannot overcome the challenges in your life and that there is nothing you can do to feel better or be happy. Similarly, “negative perfectionism” is when your self-set standards become too high to meet (ensuring failure). Everyone feels that way sometimes, but when you begin to foster it — when your behavior changes so that you don’t challenge or move on from those feelings — it can lead to depression and anxiety and keep you from setting or pursuing goals [11].


So-Called Good Behavior Changes For Health That Sometimes Do More Harm Than Good

If there’s one thing that sits firmly in the gray area between helpful and harmful behavior change, it’s avoidance-based coping behaviors [12]. Avoidance-based coping behaviors — which often include good behaviors taken to the extreme, so they don’t just give you a break from or disrupt negative thoughts or emotions, they help you avoid having to deal with them — make you feel better in the moment. Yet they can lead to some really serious emotional and mental health and behavior consequences (like anxiety, depression, rumination and negative self-talk/thought patterns, withdrawal, loneliness, and isolation) [13].


Real Tools To Help You Really Be Happy

The best-laid plans for behavior change for health involve making serious mindset changes as well as literal behavior changes. That’s why some of the most highly-recommended tools to help you be happy are almost-entirely mental, including:

  • Practicing Gratitude & Being Mindful: The best behavior changes for health are learning to be present and express gratitude for what you’re experiencing. Both have insular effects, protecting you against the physical and emotional toll stressful situations can take [14].
  • Emotion-Based & Problem-Based Coping Behaviors: Behavior changes that involve doing more self-care — like exercising, taking a warm bath, doing yoga, or meditating — can make you feel better right away while also making a long term behavior change for health. Similarly, when you identify what’s causing negative emotions and work to fix it — like learning better time management, creating to-do lists, and asking for support — are a long term investment in being able to feel better [14]!
  • Identifying (& Countering) Your Negativity Bias: By nature, you’re more likely to notice when things go wrong than when they go well [15]. So learning how to be happy often involves teaching yourself to notice and remember all the little moments when everything is going fine!
  • Having A Happiness Mindset: Deciding that you’re going to be happy and your effort to learn how to be happy will be successful helps you feel better immediately and be happy later on [16]!

These kinds of behavior changes for health take advantage of the connection between mental health and behavior in the best possible ways. That’s because they don’t just change what you’re doing; they change how you feel about doing it. And when you’re in a situation when making major physical behavior changes for health isn’t (or doesn’t seem possible), mindset-related behavior changes can make a major difference. So much so that some mental health experts say mindset matters most, because it is an essential tool for motivating behavior changes and following-through with forming better habits [17].


[READ MORE: “Do I Hate My Job Or Just Feel Stuck?” How To Be Happy Either Way]

What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Behavior Change For Health

About two-thirds of people develop cardiovascular disease, cancer, and/or diabetes (the three biggest causes of hospitalization and death) [18]. So it makes sense that there are huge public health campaigns for those conditions that underscore the importance of making proactive, preventive behavior changes for health, screening for early detection, and supporting people seeking care. And those are very important causes that absolutely deserve the visibility they get (and likely deserve more).

But it’s worth noting that, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have a mental health challenge or crisis than any of the most common physical illnesses combined (about 80% of us will) [19]. So it should follow that taking care of your mental health through the same means — making proactive, preventive behavior changes for health, getting screened for early detection, and finding support for seeking care — should be just as frequently, and openly, discussed.

But it’s not, even though high-quality prevention and awareness campaigns can reduce the development of/progression to serious mental health crises by as much as 70% [20]!


There’s Nothing Wrong With Seeking Advice About How To Feel Better!

The idea behind making behavior changes for health is that altering (or even just becoming more aware of) certain habits can help you feel better and show you how to be happy. We would love to help you break out of the limiting behavior patterns in your life  — after all, we’re in the business of helping people learn how to be happy!

That said, if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis or challenge, making behavior changes for health on its own may not be enough, And that’s okay! Mental health and behavior are always inextricably connected, but, sometimes, behavior change is best implemented as a part of a larger, professionally-guided mental health treatment plan.


*Note: We’ve come a long way towards better understanding how to be happy, how to feel better, and how those both relate to mental health. Now, we recognize that there are plenty of good supportive behavior changes that aren’t a “cure”!

Mental health is not a matter of personal choice. Nobody chooses to be depressed, or anxious, or to have an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or any other mental health condition. And the idea that conscious, intentional behavior change is a “cure” and that anyone who needs additional treatment or medication just “doesn’t want to feel better” isn’t just incorrect; it’s dangerous. It contributes to the stigma around mental illness and the stereotypes about people who have them, and it can discourage people from seeking help when they need it most. For some great resources about mental health and tools to help you feel better, check here!

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