Emotional Well-Being is the Missing Key to Better Health

This guest blog post is by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General and TEDMED 2015 speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.


Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight.

It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

Emotional well-being is the often overlooked counterpart to physical well-being. Emotional well-being is about much more than the absence of mental illness in the same way that physical well-being is about more than the absence of injury or disease. Commonly thought of as happiness, emotional well-being is a powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity. Emotional well-being is what can make the difference between surviving and thriving.

It might be tempting to assume that emotional well-being is solely a consequence of our circumstances. We may tell ourselves that we’ll be happy if we get the promotion we want, make more money, or lose some weight. This is not to say that circumstances don’t matter. They do. In particular, external factors such as poverty, violence, and poor access to health care have a real impact on health and well-being – and we must do everything we can to address them. But science tells us that there are also internal factors that influence emotional well-being and that we can in fact proactively cultivate emotional well-being using tools that are surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive.

We can cultivate emotional well-being with physical exercise, which research shows can improve mood and outlook as well as reduce depression. Contemplative practices like gratitude exercises and meditation have also been shown to improve emotional well-being, as has getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving emotional well-being is social connection – the presence of genuine, strong, relationships where one feels known and supported. Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Helping people find and build meaningful relationships is one way to improve emotional well-being. The good news is there are a growing number of communities that have begun to invest in improving emotional well-being and are seeing remarkable results.

sg-visitacion-valley-msOne example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in California.  The school is located in a community where violence is prevalent.  The majority of the students come from economically-challenged families. Many have one or both parents in prison.  Several years ago, suspension rates were high, academic performance was low and anxiety and trauma were commonplace.  Desperate to do something, the school teamed up with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education to develop a voluntary “Quiet Time” program for students – that included the option to practice 15 minutes of meditation, twice a day. In the first year alone, there was a 45% reduction in suspensions, teacher absenteeism dropped by 30%, grades and test scores went up, and the students reported less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances. The program has since been expanded to more schools, with promising results.

Emotional well-being is a relatively untapped resource that has the potential to transform our health. It can help us build resilience, enhance productivity, and shift our mindsets away from fear and pessimism toward peace and possibility – a shift that is increasingly necessary and urgent in today’s world.

Imagine if we prioritized emotional well-being as much as test scores in schools. Imagine if cultivating emotional well-being was seen as a priority in our workplaces. Imagine if emotional well-being was understood by all our policymakers to be the fuel that enables us to be healthy, productive, and strong.

The question is: can we make the cultivation of emotional well-being a priority that is reflected in our culture, our policies, and each of our lives? For the sake of our health and the health of future generations, we must ensure the answer is “yes.”