Let's be upfront: Sometimes, achieving better mental health requires professional help. People may need a therapist, or even medication, to deal with disorders like depression or anxiety.
But those serious diagnoses aside, we could all do with a little brain tune-up. Fortunately, science has some suggestions for how to overcome personality quirks or unhealthy patterns of thinking that leave people functioning less than optimally.
Here are some things that studies have found may improve people's mental health:
Set goals, but don't take failure personally
Most people are at least a little bit of a perfectionist in some area of life. Aiming high can be the first step to success, but studies have found that high levels of perfectionism are linked to poor health and increase the risk of death. Perfectionism is also linked to postpartum depression.
The problem is that perfectionism has two facets: Perfectionists tend to set high goals for themselves, but they also tend to worry about it if they fail to reach extreme levels of performance. The high goals are not the problem as much as the so-called "perfectionist concerns," or feelings of failure and worthlessness that come with falling short of reaching them, which can wreak havoc on mental health.
The trick to getting around this perfectionism trap might be to set goals without taking failure personally, said Andrew Hill, a sports psychologist at York St. John University in England.
One strategy, Hill told Live Science in August 2015, is for perfectionists to set small, manageable goals for themselves rather than one big goal. That way, failure is less likely, and so is the self-recrimination that can keep a perfectionist down. In other words, perfectionists should force themselves to think about achieving success in degrees, rather than in all-or-nothing terms.
The indoor environment protects us from heat, cold and all manner of inclement weather. But if you don't get outside frequently, you might be doing a number on your mental health.
A June 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that spending 90 minutes walking in nature can decrease brain activity in a region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This area is active when we're ruminating over negative thoughts. Walking alongside a busy road didn't quiet this area, the researchers found.
This latest study is only one of many that suggest that spending time outdoors is good for the mind. A 2010 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that 5 minutes in a green space can boost self-esteem. In a 2001 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, time in green space even improved ADHD symptoms in kids compared with time spent relaxing indoors — for example, watching TV.
Meditation may look like the person is sitting around, doing nothing. In fact, it's great for the brain.
A slew of studies have found that meditation benefits a person's mental health. For example, a 2012 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that people who trained to meditate for six weeks became less rigid in their thinking than people with no meditation training. This suggests that meditation might help people with depression or anxiety shift their thoughts away from harmful patterns, the researchers suggested.
Other studies on meditation suggests that it literally alters the brain, slowing the thinning of the frontal cortex that typically occurs with age and decreasing activity in brain regions that convey information about pain. People trained in Zen meditation also became more adept at clearing their minds after a distraction, a 2008 study found. As distracting and irrelevant thoughts are common in people with depression and anxiety , meditation might improve those conditions, the researchers said.
Next we'll tell you to eat your vegetables, right? (You should, by the way.) It's not fancy advice, but moving your body can benefit your brain. In fact, a 2012 study in the journal Neurology found that doing physical exercise was more beneficial than doing mental exercises in staving off the signs of aging in the brain.
That study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of Scottish participants in their early 70s. Among the 638 participants, those who reported walking or doing other exercises a few times a week showed less brain shrinkage and stronger brain connections than those who didn't move. People who did mentally stimulating activities such as chess or social activities didn't show those kinds of effects.
Exercise can even be part of the treatment for people with serious mental disorders. A 2014 review in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that physical activity reduces the symptoms of depression in people with mental illness, and even reduced symptoms of schizophrenia. A 2014 study in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found that adding an exercise program to the treatment plan for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reduced patients' symptoms and improved their sleep.
Be generous in your relationships
A giving relationship is a happy relationship, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. In the study, couples with children who reported high levels of generosity with one another were more satisfied in their marriages and more likely to report high levels of sexual satisfaction.
Moreover, studies show that keeping a committed relationship strong can be a big boon for your mental health. People in the early stages of a marriage or a cohabitating relationship experience a short-term boost in happiness and a drop in depression, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. And among same-sex couples, the official designation of marriage appears to boost psychological functioning over domestic partnerships (though domestic partnerships provided a boost, too).
Being generous in nonromantic relationships can provide a direct mental health boost, too. A 2013 study in the American Review of Public Administration found that people who prioritized helping others at work reported being happier with life 30 years later.
Use social media wisely
In general, having social connections is linked to better mental health. However, maintaining friendships over Facebook and other social media sites can be fraught with problems. Some research suggests that reading other people's chipper status updates makes people feel worse about themselves — particularly if those other people have a large friend list, which may lead to a lot of showing off. Those findings suggest that limiting your friend list to people who you feel particularly close to might help you avoid seeing a parade of peacocking status updates from people who seem to have perfect lives.
Time on social networking sites has been linked to depressive symptoms, though it's not clear whether the mental health problems or the social media usage comes first. A study presented in April 2015 at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association found that social media is a double-edged sword: People with mental health conditions reported that social media sites offered them feelings of belonging to a community, but also said that Facebook and other sites could exacerbate their anxiety and paranoia.
The best bet, researchers say, is to take advantage of the connectivity conferred by social media, but to avoid making Facebook or Twitter your entire social life.
"You have to be careful," University of Houston psychologist Linda Acitelli told Live Science in 2012.
Look for meaning, not pleasure
Imagine a life of lounging by a pool, cocktail in hand. When you aren't sunning yourself, you're shopping for cute clothes or planning your next party.
Paradise? Not so much. A 2007 study found that people are actually happier in life when they take part in meaningful activities than when they focus on hedonism. University of Louisville researchers asked undergrads to complete surveys each day for three weeks about their daily activities. They also answered questions about their happiness levels and general life satisfaction.
The study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, found that the more people participated in personally meaningful activities such as helping other people or pursuing big life goals, the happier and more satisfied they felt. Seeking pleasure didn't boost happiness.
Worry (some), but don't vent
Everyone's had the experience of worrying about something they can't change. If constant worrying becomes a pervasive problem, though, science suggests you should just put it on the calendar.
Scheduling your "worry time" to a single, 30-minute block each day can reduce worries over time, according to a study published in July 2011 in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Patients in the study were taught to catch themselves worrying throughout the day and then postpone the worries to a prearranged block of time. Even just realizing that they were worrying helped patients calm down, the researchers found, but stopping the worrying and saving it for later was the most effective technique of all.
Venting about stresses, however, appears to make people feel worse about life, not better. So set aside that worry time — but do it silently.
Learn not to sweat the small stuff
Daily irritations are part of life, but they can also wear us down. In a 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers used two national surveys to look at the influence of minor annoyances on people's mental health. They found surprisingly strong links.
The more negatively people responded to small things like having to wait in traffic or having arguments with a spouse, the more anxious and distressed they were likely to be when surveyed again 10 years later, the researchers reported.
"It's important not to let everyday problems ruin your moments," study researcher Susan Charles, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, said in a statement when the research was released. "After all, moments add up to days, and days add up to years."