The Importance of Psychological Wellbeing: an interview with Dr Brian Marien

Why do we think, feel, and behave the way we do? For us at Positive, this question is crucial. Why? Because understanding our own thought processes, as well as the processes of others, can confer measurable benefits to our day-to-day lives. Indeed, we aim to create psychologically-informed environments to help enhance the wellbeing and performance of individuals, groups, and organisations. To explore a bit of this, Patrick Anson recently conducted an interview with our co-founder Dr. Brian Marien.

To begin, I’ll ask this: why is psychological wellbeing important?

Psychological wellbeing is important because it impacts on pretty much everything. Our mood state, for instance, has a significant effect on our cognitive function, exerting considerable influence over our decision-making and our executive skills. Beyond that, it impacts on our physiology and physical health. There’s an area of medicine called “psychoneuroimmunology” where researchers are looking into the impact of psychological states—anxiety, stress, low mood—on the body’s resistance to disease. Psychological wellbeing is significantly influenced by our cognitive style, how we think about ourselves and the world around us, and has been shown to impact on a range of illnesses, including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, ischemic heart disease. The development of all of these is accelerated by negative mood and decelerated by positive mood. In addition to our cognitive function and physiology, the other main area of influence for psychological wellbeing is in our relationships with others—our friends, family, colleagues. We are profoundly social animals, prone to mirroring the behaviours of others. We might even say that humans are more homo imitans than homo sapiens. As such, our emotional states are extremely contagious, with negative and positive moods spreading quickly throughout groups, intensifying the impact of a certain mood state on the wellbeing and performance throughout a given network.

So, emotions colour how we see the world, they determine how we act in the world, impact on our physical health, and shape our relationships. That’s everything, as far as I can tell!

Bearing in mind the incredible influence of our psychological states, what should we do with this knowledge? What, for instance, do we mean when we talk about psychologically-informed environments?

Well, the basic idea behind psychologically-informed environments is that if you improve self-awareness, insight, and psychological understanding in a group, however large or small, there will be significant benefits. Because such insight is protective, for instance, in terms of psychological wellbeing and physical health, people’s levels of happiness and their performance in work or at school will likely improve.

How, then, do we go about enhancing psychological understanding and adjusting our behaviour?

Perhaps the best way is to enhance our understanding of certain “emergent properties”. Now, humans are not simple machines with straightforward inputs and outputs; rather, we are incredibly complex beings whose thoughts, feelings, and behaviours shift around for a number of reasons. An “emergent property” can be thought of as a tangible set of cognitive tendencies or behavioural traits that emerges out of this complex system—a common way of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving that we can spot, analyse, and adjust as necessary. What we focus our attention on is a key emergent property. If we focus our attention mostly on the negative stuff that happens (which is, incidentally, neurologically “stickier”), then we put our psychological wellbeing at greater risk. However, if we make an effort to focus more on the positives, this is psychologically protective.

I should stress, though, that focusing on the positive should not necessarily entail an attempt to suppress or ignore negative moods. In fact, what is extremely protective is the capacity to accept and sit with negative moods, acknowledging that, even if we don’t know the cause of the mood, it is not permanent, that it will pass, and that we can cope with it. This process of normalisation is essential is building resilience.

Because the brain is plastic, changing its neural wiring based on thoughts and experiences, the more we focus on emergent properties and modify them when necessary the better we get at it. So, over time and with regular effort, we can both get better at sitting with negative moods and getting out of them, transforming unwelcome behaviours into more positive and helpful ones.

So it is in many ways about improving our self-awareness?

Yes, that’s right. It is about becoming aware of how our emotions govern our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Our emotions are responsible for a huge amount of our decision-making; indeed, they have what is known as “neurological primacy” over our rational-thinking brains when it comes to our decisions. The Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, who found that 80% of the decisions economists make are governed by their unconscious brain, neatly conceptualises this process in his model of “system 1” and “system 2”. System 2 is our rational thinking brain, which has a very small capacity, and system 1 is our fast-processing emotional brain, which dominates our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In normal decision-making, system 1 processes the answer and then sends it to system 2, but system two (being “rational”) is unaware that it has been sent the answer from system 1—the “secret author”. This is why we often think we are being rational when we are not. Indeed, we are unaware of the unawareness of our underlying irrationalities.

The way to amend these irrational processes is by enhancing our emotional literacy. Emotional reasoning is, of course, not all bad. Our emotions are in fact all evolutionarily beneficial in their own ways. Fear is a typical example of this as it is related to our stress-response which ignites our “fight or flight” instinct, but even emotions like boredom and loneliness are beneficial. The former is the motivational force that led our ancestors to try new things—to experiment with untested foods, to seek out unchartered territories, and to interact playfully with their environment—while the latter encourages us to interact with others and form the social groups that we found so protective in our early days as a species.

Nevertheless, since emotional reasoning is not always the most helpful in today’s world and, often problematically, is always the first voice we hear in our heads, having the awareness to spot, scrutinise, and potentially refute its logic is a crucial and achievable life skill.

Thank you, Brian – some really insightful insights on how being aware of the impact of our psychological wellbeing impacts, well, everything! I am very much looking forward to our next interview specifically looking at the topic of ‘Focus.

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