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What Do We Need For Emotional Well-being?

In a recent article I wrote about the the components of well-being according to the PERMA model from Positive Psychology, and highlighted three main elements: positive emotion, engagement and flow, and meaning and purpose. But what conditions do we need to have in place in our lives, in order for these components of happiness to come into being? In other words, what are our emotional needs as human beings? In this article I offer my answer.

Without further ado, here is the list.

  1. Safety, security
  2. Autonomy, control, choice
  3. Stimulation, challenge – opportunity to learn and develop
  4. Sense of competence / achievement
  5. Social connection – having these elements:
  • giving & receiving attention
  • giving & receiving affection
  • understanding and acceptance (warts and all)
  • sense of belonging (to community, family) – part of something greater
  • having status / respect / being valued within the group

Before going into the elements in more depth, a few general comments are in order.

There are a lot of things we need, to be well and happy, including having enough food, but here I'm focusing on psychological and emotional conditions rather than physical needs, and social and cultural needs.

I'm asking, what do we need to truly thrive and flourish as humans, not just what do we need to survive, or just get by in life. So I'm not going to worry too much about the distinction between "need" and "want".

There's a lot of overlap with the PERMA model - it's really just a re-working from a different perspective (which is the question, what conditions do we need to be well and happy?)

Five Areas of Emotional Need

(I'm calling them areas, because some of them are quite broad, especially the fifth, which I've broken down into sub-components.)

1. Safety, security

We can look at this in mind-body terms: without a sense that we are physically and emotionally safe, our physiology goes into a state of "fight-or-flight", and can get stuck there. Persistent or chronic stress, even if relatively mild, is harmful. For example, the stress hormone cortisol, at chronically high levels, starts damaging and even killing brain cells.

The feeling of safety is a distinct physiological state that allows the brain's social and executive circuits to become activated.

In the modern world, most of us don't face real physical threats, but social and emotional ones, or the threat of losing what we have. But these stressors still provoke the stress response just the same.

Let's not forget short, sporadic stress isn't harmful, and is probably even beneficial.

2. Autonomy, choice, control

Remember the second element of the PERMA model is engagement and flow - the more flow we experience, the happier we are. Remember flow is the experience of being so absorbed in some activity that it feels completely effortless and we lose a sense of ourselves as distinct from the activity - there is just the doing, a kind of oneness if you like.

One of main pre-conditions of flow is having control and autonomy.

3. Stimulation & Challenge

Another pre-condition for flow is the right level of challenge. If we're engaged in something that is too far beyond our current level of competence, we feel anxious. Too far below and we feel bored. So we need to engage in activities that create this opportunity for flow.

Challenge is what pushes to grow and develop, or to self-actualise - this seems to be an innate human need.

Ideally we'd find stimulation and challenge in our work. Jobs that involve mindless, repetitive activity, without any sense of control, are unhealthy.

4. Sense of Competence & Achievement

A sense of competence grows out of the above two elements especially. It's a sense of being skilled, and a sense that we are in fact growing and developing not just in an abstract sense as individuals but in terms of our skills and practical abilities.

Life is sequence of periods of striving and struggling, followed by resting in a sense of contentment that comes from achievement, from a successful outcome of our striving. It's not uncommon for people to miss out on this contentment, they're immediately into striving towards the next thing. It isn't healthy. It's likely to trap you in a physiological state of arousal or fight-or-flight.

5. Social Connection (Healthy Relationships)

This is a huge area in itself, and I'm not going to say much beyond re-iterating the sub-components - what we need in our relationships with others:

  • giving & receiving attention
  • giving & receiving affection
  • understanding and acceptance (warts and all)
  • sense of belonging (to community, family) – part of something greater
  • having status / respect / being valued within the group

Together these add up to having healthy relationships across different walks of life - partner, family, friends, work colleagues.

Relationships form a major part of the context for the first four elements in my list.

The Stress Resilient Mind Programme

How does my stress resilience training with biofeedback and mindfulness programme relate to this list of emotional needs?

I'm not going to pretend it represents all you need to be happy. It focuses on developing what I call mind-body skills, which are the skills of self-regulation: being able to influence your biology towards states more supportive of high-performance and well-being. This skillset actually underpins quite a lot of aspects of the above five. Perhaps most obviously the first - feeling safe and secure, which as I suggested is a state of relaxed physiology that allows the brain's social and executive functioning to come to the fore.

It's not that we need to be in a relaxed state all the time, but it certainly helps if we can rapidly and easily return to a state of calm physiology and emotional positivity. That, in essence, is what the programme is about.

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