How To Use The Five Ways To Wellbeing

The Five Ways to Wellbeing were developed 10 years ago by the New Economics Foundation in 2008 to help guide policy makers and organisations in how to promote and maintain positive mental health.

The researchers conducted an extensive review of the evidence for what is most important for positive mental health, and grouped it into 5 headings:

1) Connect

2) Be Active

3) Notice

4) Keep Learning

5) Give

This article is my interpretation of the report, and how organisations can implement some of the ideas.

Cumulative, consistent progress

There is no one single initiative that is going to make a significant difference to wellbeing.

Small, incremental changes in each of the Five Ways to Wellbeing will have a cumulative impact when carried out consistently over time.

Aim to make progress rather than perfection; simple actions you can easily incorporate to your daily life will grow confidence that you can build on.

1) Connect

“Connect with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community.

Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day”

What is Connection?

Human beings are hard-wired to seek out connection and as we were evolving it would have been essential to our survival.

Being too different or separated from the tribe would have spelled danger and a threat to survival.

The emotion of loneliness is designed to trigger us into taking action to get more connection in our lives.

There are different types of connection to consider:

1) Primary social network

This is your core group of family and friends

2) Broader social network

Feeling like you are a part of groups, clubs, the community and yes, your organisation is an important aspect of your social connection needs.

These more ‘superficial’ relationships are important for feelings of connectedness, familiarity and sense of self-worth associated with an individual’s position in a community.

3) Connection with self

Being comfortable in your own company, reflecting on what’s important to you, and a sense of purpose in your life is a part of connection that is often overlooked

Why is connection important?

1) Social relationships are critical for promoting wellbeing and acting as a buffer against mental ill health

2) People with a primary social network (close relatives or friends) of 3 or less have a higher probability of common mental health disorders

3) After leisure activities, spending time with partner, children, friends and family was the most-cited reason for wanting to work less

4) Social networks promote a sense of belonging and wellbeing

5) Happy people have stronger social relationships than less-happy people


1) Social recreation areas within the workplace

How can you encourage people to spend time together in a recreational setting during the day?

Breakout areas with board games, table football, table tennis, healthy food preparation areas

2) Sports clubs

Set up a 5-a-side football league, beginner running groups, 3 Peaks Challenge training team, ten pin bowling or any other sport employees have an interest in.

3) Social events

Regular social events such as picnics, celebrations, adventure days, or even just regular lunch time walks

4) Disconnect to connect better

Encourage employees to disconnect from work emails and calls for a number of hours in the evening to help with better connection with family or friends

2) Be Active

“Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good.

Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.”

What is Activity?

It might sound obvious, but recommendation for activity in the context of mental wellbeing is subtle different to physical fitness.


Public guidelines for exercise requirements are 30 minutes five times a week are regarded as required to significantly reduce symptoms of depression

Even single bouts of exercise of as little as 10 minutes can still have a positive effect on mood

Higher intensity and longer duration exercise is still recommended for most people.

However, many people struggle to find the motivation or time to meet these requirements and so fail to even get started.

Aim for progress, not perfection.


The evidence suggests that the type of activity is unimportant. Anything that gets you moving and that you enjoy will be good.

Why is activity important?

1) Regular physical activity is associated with a greater sense of wellbeing, lower rates of depression and anxiety

2) Exercise offers a number of physical responses, such as the release of endorphins that can reduce the perception of pain

3) There are also a number of potential psychological benefits to activity, such as perceived self-efficacy, a sense of mastery and a perceived ability to cope.

It also detracts from negative thoughts

4) Even small changes in level of activity can enhance wellbeing


1) Messaging

Create clear, simple and consistent messaging about the benefits of activity and suggestions for how to add more into the day

2) Walking groups

Start a lunchtime walking group. Begin with just 15 minutes and try to find a route that includes some natural green space

3) Wellbeing champions

Find wellbeing ‘champions’ who can help set up active initiatives such as beginner run groups or physical challenges such as the 3 Peaks

4) Get out of the chair

Experiment with standing or walking meetings, and standing desks

5) Stairwells

Make sure stairwells are well lit and appealing as a way to move between floors

6) Activity challenges

Set up internal Fitbit activity step count challenges

3) Take Notice

“Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends.

Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.”

What is taking notice?

Having read through the report it does seem that ‘take notice’ is the same as mindfulness.

The only reason I can think for this choice of terminology is that 10 years ago mindfulness was still quite a niche subject and not as widely accepted as it is today!

There are two sides to mindfulness / taking notice: the practice and the pause.

The Practice

Setting time aside to strengthen the ‘mindfulness muscle’ through deliberate, progressive practice.

This can be done in the form of a meditation, paying attention to our breathing, scanning the body or focusing on an object or process (such as eating)

The Pause

The awareness we have of our moment to moment thoughts, and our ability to pause between thought and response.

This ability to pause can help us make decisions that are influenced less by emotion and more by logic and the ‘human’ brain.

Taking ownership

Lasting behavioural change can only be achieved if the proposed interventions are somewhat internalised and owned by the individual – the only person you can change is yourself

Increasing self-awareness by ‘taking notice’ may have the added benefit of enhancing the process of individuals deciding for themselves to make positive changes to their habits.

Why is taking notice important?

1) Being trained to become more aware of sensations, thoughts, and feelings for 8-12 weeks can enhance wellbeing for several years

2) Being in a state of mindfulness has been shown to predict positive mental states

3) Open awareness is particularly valuable for choosing behaviours that are consistent with one’s needs, values and interests

4) This self-regulatory behaviour is thought to be important for wellbeing

5) Reminding oneself to ‘take notice’ is a step in the right direction towards strengthening and broadening self-awareness

6) Studies have shown that being aware of what is taking place in the present directly enhances well-being

7) Savouring an experience can help to reinstate life priorities.

8) Heightened awareness enhances an individual’s self-understanding and allows an individual to make choices in alignment with his/her own values and intrinsic motivations


1) Quiet areas

Set aside a quiet space where people can sit and practice mindfulness.

Provide resources to help them develop this skill (for example meditation or mindfulness apps, books and how-to guides)

2) Daily mindfulness session

Start the day or a meeting with a short mindfulness session.

3) Mindfulness courses

Find a local practitioner who can come in and run a lunchtime mindfulness training program

4) Mindfulness & meditation apps

Offer to pay for subscriptions to apps like Headspace or Calm

5) Share best practices

Communicate ideas about how to avoid distractions that can increase stress levels (e.g. mobile phones out of sight when working, email notifications off, smart watch notifications off, Pomodoros etc.)

4) Keep Learning

“Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food.

Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.”

What does ‘keep learning’ mean?

Within our roles in the workplace there is usually an element of continual professional development built in.

However, to really tap into the wellbeing benefits of learning, it should be something outside of the context of work.

The report states: ’Given that extrinsic incentives and pressures can reduce motivation to perform even inherently interesting activities, it is important that the messages around this action appeal to both formal and informal learning, which do not necessarily have instrumental ends (e.g. career progression or attainment of a course certificate).”

Why is it important to keep learning?

1) The continuation of learning through life has the benefits of enhancing an individual’s self-esteem, encouraging social interaction and a more active life

2) Adult learning has been correlated with positive effects on wellbeing, reports of life satisfaction, optimism and efficacy

3) Participation in lifelong learning serves to positively impact on an individual’s wellbeing and resilience

4) The practice of setting goals has been strongly associated with higher levels of wellbeing

5)  Promotion of wellbeing is associated with goal-directed behaviour when the goals are self-generated, and congruent with personal values


1) Contribute to courses

Offer to part-fund non-work related courses and programs that facilitate ongoing learning.

2) Ask!

Ask employees what support would help them with their own learning.

3) In house talks

Develop a program of short talks given by individual employees who are passionate about a particular subject.

This can be a great way to develop communication and presentation skills, share a diverse range of topics and get to know more about individual members of the organisation.

4) Personal development programs

Put together a personal development program that helps participants learn more about themselves, how they are motivated and understand their core values.

5) Give

“Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in.

Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.”

What does giving mean?

As you can see from the examples above, in the context of wellbeing, ‘giving’ isn’t financial.

Giving can be your time or expertise to help individuals or groups, or even simply giving somebody a compliment or your full attention.

There is a difference between giving through a sense of obligation or duty, and giving freely from the heart.

Why is it important to give?

1) Mutual cooperation has been shown to light up the reward areas of the brain

2) ‘The Foresight definition of mental wellbeing says that it is enhanced when an individual is able to achieve a sense of purpose in society and, thus, contribute to their community

3) Helping, sharing, giving and team-oriented behaviours are likely to be associated with an increased sense of self-worth and positive feelings

4) Feelings of happiness and life satisfaction have been strongly associated with active participation in social and community life

5) Research into actions for promoting happiness has shown that committing an act of kindness once a week over a six-week period is associated with an increase in well-being, compared to control group

6) Giving freely from the heart rather through a sense of obligation or duty can contribute to a sense of wellbeing.

7) For the full impact of giving to be realised is just as important to graciously receive compliments and offers of help.


1) Volunteering days

Allow employees a day a month or quarter to volunteer for their favourite charity

2) Tidy Community

Organise groups to spend half an hour during lunch break litter picking in the local park

3) Mentoring

Start a mentoring scheme where more experienced members of the team can help newer members with their professional development

4) Mental health first aiders

Give employees the opportunity to attend mental health first aid courses so they can better support their colleagues

5) Charity fundraising

Organise charity events to raise money for local charities.

6) Gratitude Wall

Start a ‘Gratitude Wall’ – a space in a communal area where people can write down some of the things they are grateful for

7) Random Acts of Kindness

Start a ‘RAK Chain’ by doing something kind or helpful for a colleague and suggesting that they ‘pass it on’ by doing something kind for somebody else. 

Five Ways to Wellbeing Action Plan

Most of my suggestions above are free or cheap to implement, though some will take a little thought and organisation to set up.

Introducing the Five Ways to Wellbeing across the board in large organisations could potentially be a long and drawn out process, but consider how you can autonomously introduce initiatives in your department or team.

What’s your 80/20?

What are some of the simplest, low barrier changes you can introduce right away?

Doing 20% of everything you could do is better than waiting for the perfect time to do 100%.

Pick one or two things from each of the Five Ways to Wellbeing and begin experimenting with them.

By getting started you will start the process of change and can begin to track improvements through engagement surveys or data such as stress-related sickness & absence.


1) Southern Health & Social Care Trust

2) New Economics Foundation

3) Devon Partnership NHS Trust