Nutrition, Sleep, Exercise and Optimism – the + in PERMA+

The + in PERMA+ stands for four factors that have been shown to have a significant impact on Wellbeing: nutrition, sleep, exercise and optimism.

The impact of nutrition on feelings of wellbeing is something that most of us have experienced – the mental sluggishness you feel the day after a greasy take-away meal, the 3pm sugar-crash that leaves you struggling to focus, or conversely, the glow of satisfaction from eating just enough of a delicious healthy meal. In line with these personal experiences, research has demonstrated that the food we eat has significant effects on our wellbeing. The behavioural risk factor that is most strongly linked with negative mental health outcomes is a low consumption of fruit and vegetables. However, new research is linking gut health with mental health, which is strongly connected to the consumption of so-called “whole foods” (foods that somebody’s grandparents would recognise); highly processed foods and high consumption of refined sugars, seem, on balance, to have a less positive impact on mental health, at least partly because of their impact on gut health.

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Sleep is another very significant factor in wellbeing. Average sleep times have decreased around 20% in industrialised societies over the last century – from an average of 8.5 hours to as low as 6.7 hours per night. Insufficient sleep has been linked with the development or worsening of most mental health conditions, affecting between 50-80% of patients in psychiatric treatment hospitals (compared to 10-18% of the general population). Insomnia is even listed as a symptom for many major mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and bipolar disorder, among others. Clinicians now see the importance of treating sleep disorders in clinical populations, but also in treating sleep disorders preventatively in patients who have not yet developed significant mental health conditions, to ensure continued good mental health.

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Our understanding of the importance of exercise continues to grow as research in this area continues – while it’s been clear for some time that regular exercise has significant positive benefits for the body, Dr John Ratey from Harvard Medical School has recently been looking into the benefits of exercise for the brain: wellbeing, focus, concentration and learning. The information he provides in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain provides information about the studies that have shown that “daily exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin” – in terms of its ability to boost your mood and help you concentrate. More broadly, research has found that moving your body energetically for half an hour each day has profound positive effects on mood and physical and mental wellbeing.

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Finally, Optimism has emerged as a key factor for wellbeing in the last few years. Optimists do better in work, school, sports, and relationships. They get depressed less often than pessimists do, make more money, have happier marriages and even live longer. While it seems intuitive that people with a positive outlook on life are probably happier overall than those with a more pessimistic view, two important factors have emerged. Firstly, that an optimistic outlook can be learned, and secondly, that the most powerful form of optimism is “realistic optimism”, an optimism that doesn’t deny the hard facts of life, or the very real difficulties we face, but believes that with committed, consistent work there is a good chance for a positive outcome. Humans naturally have a “negativity bias” – a tendency to look for and avoid the downside, the risks, the worst possible option; cultivating deliberate optimism works to counter this negativity bias and let us view the world in a more balanced way.

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So, with all that in mind, what are some strategies for supporting good nutrition, sleep, exercise habits and optimism?


  • Make a plan to substitute a processed snack with a whole-food snack on a daily basis – instead of a chocolate bar or chips, have Greek yoghurt with berries, or slices of cheese and apple, or hummus and carrot sticks. Do this for two weeks and assess any impact on how you’re feeling.
  • Build in green vegies with all meals. If you’re not a fan of the taste, use small amounts of sauces, butter or cheese to make them more palatable – with time, you will get used to the taste and begin to enjoy them!
  • If you feel very stuck with a less-than-optimal diet, consider getting adviced from a registered Dietitian, who can advise on how to build a healthy way of eating into your everyday life.

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  • Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine are all potent sleep disruptors. Reducing their use is likely to improve sleep quality and quantity over time, but even avoiding them in the 4-6 hours before bed time can have a positive impact on sleep. If you feel like these substances are affecting your sleep and you don’t know how to reduce or change your current usage patterns, looking at resources from Quitline or Drinkwise can be helpful, as can talking with a psychologist.
  • Sleep hygiene can be improved for many people through making small changes like: maintaining a regular sleep-and-wake schedule, using the bedroom only for sleeping or sex, and keeping the bedroom dark and free of distractions like laptops, smart phones or televisions.
  • Relaxation techniques like meditation, guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and releasing each part of your body in sequence, from toes to head) can assist in getting the body and the mind into a relaxed state to support sleep. has some excellent online meditations for supporting sleep induction.

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  • Simple techniques like parking your car further away or getting off the bus a few stops earlier can help build exercise into your workday.
  • Teaming up with a friend to take a walk during lunchbreaks or after work can make it more enjoyable to get out and get moving.
  • Playing outside with children is also a highly energetic activity that feels more like fun.
  • As an added bonus, any exercise you get is likely to improve the quality of your sleep that night!
  • If you can’t get a regular exercise routine started on your own, consider booking in to a personal trainer who can advise you on an effective routine and help you stay accountable.

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  • Look out for optimists to hang out with – research shows we are strongly influenced by the people we spend time with, and many of our traits can be predicted from the traits of the 6 people we are closest to. People who are less optimistic can get a mood boost from spending time with optimists, and over time, will begin to take on some more optimistic habits of mind.
  • See yourself as a “cause”, not an “effect” – optimists tend to have an internal locus-of-control, meaning that they tend to believe that they are responsible for what happens to them. Try looking for good things that have happened to you and exploring the actions you took to make those happen; over time, your tendency to believe in your ability to achieve positive outcomes through your own actions will increase.
  • Spend time daily on activities that make you feel positive and laugh – because positive emotions are self-reinforcing, if you can do something that makes you feel good, or makes you laugh out loud, you change your mindset to a more flexible and adaptable one, able to see the optimistic viewpoint much more easily.
  • Realise that optimism does not exist solely within you but is a relationship between you and your world. Taking steps to improve the world around you, whether by tidying your living space, doing something nice for a relative, or volunteering for a charity you believe in, can boost feelings of optimism as you see how your positive actions have an impact on the world.

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Feeling like the basics of sleep, nutrition, exercise or optimism aren’t working for you at the moment? A psychologist can help you with improving sleep and optimism, or connect with you other professionals who can support your exercise or nutrition needs.

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