How to Foster Better Mental Health This Year
Written by Adiemus Seah , Australia
Adiemus (BBSC, BACC, MGPC, MAPP) is passionate about helping people achieve goals and enhance wellbeing. He is the founder and director of Strengths Optimizer, and has worked as a registered counsellor, certified strengths coach, and accredited mental health first aid instructor for twenty years. He is the host and producer of the YouTube series, Science UP Your Wellbeing, where he interviews experts in wellbeing science and shares nuggets of wisdom on helping people flourish. He currently lives in Melbourne.
If you’re still thinking about doing something new for this year, I’d really like to suggest a CAR. And I don’t mean a physical one (unless we need one).
CAR—Competency, Autonomy and Relationship—is a learning principle that can help us flourish and foster positive mental health. Based on research by professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, CAR refers to a set of essential needs that help us foster better mental health.
Even though the CAR principle comes from the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is an established theory in psychology, the framework can help us recall some important biblical principles.
Let’s unpack the ingredients briefly and explore what they can look like in our everyday lives.
Competence refers to our need for mastery, which helps us develop confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Research shows that we feel energised, engaged, and authentic when we use our strengths, which makes us happier and healthier people.
One way to build competency is to discover our strengths, and actively use them.
The idea of using our strengths is very much in the Bible. God has given us spiritual gifts to meet the needs in our community and build up the church (Ephesians 4:16). We can find mentions of these gifts in Ephesians 4:11-12 (ministry gifts), Romans 12:6-8 (motivational gifts) and 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 (manifestation gifts). And in 1 Peter 4:10, we are encouraged to actively discover and exercise our gifts (strengths) so that everything we do will bring glory to God.
Autonomy is the need to choose and act according to our values. In other words, we do things because we choose to, not because we have to. Having autonomy helps us become more invested, enthusiastic, and creative in our activities and relationships.
To gain autonomy, we need to know what our values are and make sure our goals and actions are aligned to these values.
The biblical basis for this is understanding our freedom in Christ (Galatians 5). Christ has set us free when He died and rose for us. And now that we have the Spirit, as we live by Him, He will give us the desire and the power to do what is good and pleasing to God. In other words, we are empowered to live by our values in Christ.
Relatedness is our need to belong and connect with others. It is the desire to feel loved, form significant relationships, be part of a community and contribute to others. Studies show that relatedness is one of the most consistent and powerful predictors for psychological wellbeing.
We can nurture relatedness internally (love ourselves), horizontally (love others) and vertically (love God).
John 3:16 is the epic expression of relatedness—God, the Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords, made His way from heaven to earth to bring His unconditional, undying love to us. He delights in us and longs to draw close to us. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38).
And so, I believe that learning the CAR principle and understanding the truths behind them can help us improve our mental well-being and to honour God.
Here are some practical tips on how you get the CAR:
1. Find out what you do best
One excellent way to hone your competence is to discover and put your strengths to work. Your strengths are your natural talents, skills, and gifts that you enjoy doing. To put it simply, how can you do more of what you do best each day?
You can start by identifying and naming your strengths. The CliftonStrengths (CS) research says that there are 34 strengths that you can leverage for excellence, success, and well-being. Some of these include Achiever, Belief, Communication, Developer, and Relator.
In my case, one of my top strengths is Learner—having a great desire to learn and continuously improve. Focusing on this strength pushed me to complete several degrees and certifications and to build my competence in counselling and coaching.
You can also use informal ways to discover your strengths. For example, share with a friend or family a personal accomplishment that you are proud of, and paint a detailed picture (What, How, Why, When and Where) of how you achieved it.
Or you can ask yourself these questions: What energises or motivates me? What keeps me engaged? What activities do I pick up quickly? What activities give me the greatest satisfaction?
2. Live out what matters most to you
Autonomy is about knowing and acting according to your values.
What matters to you? What are you willing to fight for? What qualities do you want to cultivate in yourself? How do you hope your loved ones would describe you at your funeral? These are questions that can help you discover your values.
Your values are what guides your decisions and behaviours, especially in difficult situations. For example, in 2019, God called us to relocate from Adelaide to Melbourne as a family. I did not like God’s plan because we were settled, comfortable and thriving. Moving to Melbourne meant we had to quit our jobs, sell our business and house, say goodbye to our loved ones, look for new jobs, new home, new school for our son, and all sorts of losses and changes.
I could choose comfort over obedience, fear over faith, and my will over God’s will. But because our values are founded on God’s character, His words and promises, we moved to Melbourne during the pandemic and went through lockdown 1.0 to 6.0! And God has remained loving and faithful.
3. Foster meaningful relationships
As a thanatologist who specialises in death, dying, grief, and loss, I often help terminally ill patients focus on expressing these five powerful lines in their relationships with their loved ones: “I love you”, “I am sorry”, “I forgive you”, “Thank you”, and “Goodbye”. Regardless of which life stage you’re in, these five lines can help you strengthen relationships with your family and friends.
When was the last time you told someone that you loved them, cared for them, and that they mattered to you?
Can you think of someone you need to apologise to? Is there someone you need to forgive? What about someone whom you can appreciate and thank?
Are there disappointments, discouragements, pain, and hurt you need to let go of?
Carrying out Matthew 22:37-40 is also another way for us to nurture relatedness in our lives.
Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We love our neighbours (or others) by sharing what we have with them, forgiving one another, refusing to gossip or slander a person, and looking after their interests.
And how do we love God? We love God through obeying His words, making disciples, and exercising the spiritual gifts (strengths) He has given us to serve and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Are you ready to foster better mental health this year? As you make plans and work towards your goals in the coming months, I encourage you to also reflect on the brevity of your time here on earth (Psalm 90:12) and recognise that your time is in God’s sovereign and faithful hands. Cherish and live one day at a time and seek divine wisdom for the best way to live throughout each day for His glory.
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