The 5 Cs

“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”

Doris Lessing


Being challenged is the way we grow in self confidence, and develop a sense of competence and capability. A concept developed through the positive psychology literature is that of flow, meaning that a good life comes from being fully absorbed and engaged in activities we like.[1]

For someone with a high level of mental wellbeing this would include:

  • Taking on realistic challenges that stretch existing skills
  • Setting your own goals, evaluating progress and adjusting actions
  • Learning a new skill or area of knowledge


“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” Joshua J Marine

Someone with a low level of mental health usually doesn’t like challenge, they prefer to stay safe, not vary from their regular routine, try to avoid, deny or resist change.

For someone recovering from mental ill-health, situations of challenge might provoke intense anxiety, panic reactions, or at times an unrealistic perception of what can be achieved. An important skill for professionals is to develop the art of meaningful goal setting, in particular goals which present the right level of challenge, which are short term and can generate immediate feedback, so as to help the person become more fully engaged in goal striving.[2]


This relates to a number of emotional needs such as giving and receiving attention, friendship and intimacy, being part of a wider community, having a sense of status within social groupings.[3] Not for nothing is solitary confinement considered one of the most severe forms of punishment.

“In the coldest February, as in every other month in every other year, the best thing to hold on to in this world is each other.” Linda Ellerbee, Move On: Adventures in the Real World

Participation in social and community life has attracted a lot of attention in the field of wellbeing research which suggests that ‘helping, sharing, giving and team-oriented behaviours are likely to be associated with an increased sense of self-worth and positive feelings.’[4]

For someone with a high level of mental wellbeing this would include:

  • Having a small circle of close relationships with family and friends
  • Being part of a wider social network which will vary over time
  • Finding opportunities to give and help others

“When something is missing in your life, it usually turns out to be someone.” Robert Brault,

Someone with a low level of mental wellbeing may find it hard to meet new people, and find that as they get older their social circle diminishes. People who find themselves unemployed may feel unable to replace the connections they took for granted in the workplace.

Someone recovering from mental ill-health will often feel very cut off and isolated from both close relationships and may have virtually no social network. The stigma and discrimination is a further contributory factor, making it particularly difficult for someone to reengage with work, learning or social activities.[5]


Exploring ways to still your mind, distance yourself from your thoughts, reduce emotional intensity and become a noticing person – this is what I mean by composure. The concept of ‘flow’ is relevant here as whenever a person is fully engaged and absorbed by their activity, thoughts and emotions disappear. Some people consciously practice this through meditation or yoga for example, but it could equally be done through reading an absorbing novel, doing housework or gardening, communing with nature, bird watching and many other activities. Many people find great benefit from ‘losing’ themselves in physical exercise which suits them, from jogging to swimming, dancing to cycling and so on.

 “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair” Howard Thurman

For someone with a high level of mental well-being, this would include:

  • Taking regular time out to feel connection with the natural world, whether walks in the country, climbing mountains, swimming in the sea
  • Being able to observe thoughts and emotions whether positive or negative, and allow them to pass before taking action
  • Having a belief in their capacity to deal with stressful, challenging and upsetting events

Someone with a low level of mental wellbeing will often react in response to negative thoughts and feelings such as fear or anger. Behaviour in these situations may be aggressive or passive. A lifestyle where shopping and watching TV are the primary leisure activities is rather like the mental equivalent of a diet of junk food!

Someone recovering from mental ill-health may feel at the mercy of unpredictable and frightening thoughts and emotions which then affect how they behave. Learning and practising specific techniques for relaxation, deep breathing and noticing are valuable tools to help manage intense anxiety and low depressive moods, as well as other symptoms. Mindfulness is another term used to describe this process and is gaining increased support in mental health services as the benefits have been so apparent.[6]


This is about understanding and believing in our own personal values, strengths, skills and resources. We all have stories about our lives, but positive stories will focus on overcoming obstacles, dealing with difficult life events, learning from our mistakes. Stories in which we’re the helpless victim diminish us personally, undermine self esteem and encourage our sense of powerlessness. The more confident we are about our own values and strengths, the more likely we are be in ‘alignment’ – that is, our lifestyle, work, relationships and sense of purpose really do fit with the kind of person we are.

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Goethe

For someone with a high level of mental wellbeing, this would include:

  • Having a strong sense of integrity and belief in their ability to grow and develop through life
  • Being willing to take personal responsibility and learn from mistakes
  • Experiencing life’s journey as meaningful and worthwhile

Someone with a low level of mental wellbeing is likely to see themselves as a victim of circumstance or ill treatment/thoughtlessness by others. They may feel stress and anxiety as a result of being ‘out of alignment’ in their work or relationships for example, experiencing a conflict between their personal values and the role they feel required to take on.

Someone recovering from mental ill-health is especially vulnerable to stigma and discrimination which reinforces their feelings of low self esteem and self worth. There is growing support for strengths/resilience based models of intervention, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and Narrative Psychology. These are all focused on increasing wellbeing through developing skills in positive thinking and reframing.


Creativity represents the fun, child like aspects of our nature. It’s the means by which we tap into our inner joy and inspiration. Creativity represents the right side of our brains, the part that enables us to have rhythm, spatial awareness, imagination, daydreaming, colour and holistic awareness.[7]

For someone with a high level of mental wellbeing, this would include:

  • Finding ways to express their creativity as a regular part of their work and leisure activities
  • Taking opportunities to think outside the box, look at things from new and different perspectives
  • Developing their own creative talents and encouraging those of others


“Why should we all use our creative power……?  Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money” Brenda Ueland.

Someone with a low level of mental wellbeing is likely to deny any inner creativity, or feel frustrated by their inability to fulfill a creative dream, critical of their own endeavours and jealous of others who are recognised for artistic achievements.

Someone recovering from mental ill-health may find this presents a real opportunity to develop their creativity. Using mediums such as art, writing, sculpture, and music can help someone explore feelings and thoughts which cannot be verbalised. Involvement in community based arts initiatives can increase connection and reduce the impact of stigma. There is a rich psychotherapeutic tradition associated with art therapy, psychodrama and creative writing which allows difficult, contradictory and dangerous feelings to be expressly safely and explored further.

[1] Nakamura J, Csikszentmihalyl M, 2002,The Concept Of Flow, Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press

[2] Slade M, BMC Health Services Research 2010 10:26

[3] Griffin & Tyrrell, 2003, Human Givens, HG Publishing


[5] Slade B, Mental health and well-being at the Workplace, WHO report 2010, p33


[7] Buzan T, 2005, The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps, Thorsons