What Is Intellectual Wellness? How to Expand Your Skills for a Happier Life

Many may be familiar with mindfulness and its importance for mental health—but have you ever thought about intellectual wellness?

As nourishing and exercising our physical bodies is crucial for our health, taking your brain to the gym and constantly developing and feeding your mind is just as important.

According to the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion at Harvard University, some of the potential benefits of intellectual wellness (or intellectual wellbeing) include:

  • Improved cognition.
  • Improved concentration and memory.
  • Enhanced clarity in thinking.
  • The experience of a more stimulating life.
  • The development of personal values and opinions.
  • Having a more open mind.

What Is Intellectual Wellness?

Simply put, intellectual wellness is "the wellness of the mind," Michael Ebinger, the director of Washington State University (WSU) Spokane's University Center for Innovation who spoke about intellectual wellness for TEDx Talks, told Newsweek.

Randy McCoy, vice president of product and curriculum for The Little Gym, an enrichment and physical development center for children in Arizona, told Newsweek: "Intellectual wellness is much about the desire and ability to expand one's knowledge and skills through continued learning, productive curiosity, creativity thinking and exploration."

Ebinger broke down intellectual wellness into the following fundamental elements:

  • Actively learning throughout life, also known as constant or continuous learning.
  • Being open to new ideas.
  • Being involved in creative activities (such as writing, photography, community assistance).
  • Reading "all sorts of works," from those written by contemporary writers to those long dead.
  • Keeping updated on current affairs.
  • Participating in hobbies.
  • A connection to the arts.
A woman taking pictures outdoors.
A woman taking pictures outdoors in a sunlit backdrop. Intellectual wellness entails being involved in creative activities, such as photography. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How To Improve Intellectual Wellness

Improving your intellectual wellness entails "an act of doing or immersing oneself" in the elements mentioned above, Ebinger explained.

For example, "I am an active listener to many forms of classical music, and I am also a student of viola. Others might choose to paint, write poetry, learn new skills, take in all sorts of news sources to be well-versed on current events," he said.

McCoy said it's also important to understand the connection between intellectual wellness and physical activity and exercise.

"The same areas of the brain responsible for cognitive thinking tasks are activated and developed during physical activity and exercise," meaning "when the body is in motion, the brain comes to life," he said.

The brain shifts into a "higher gear" and is "ready for action" during physical activity and stays in this higher gear for a good amount of time even after we stop the activity.

Illustration of head and interior of brain.
An illustration of the interior of the brain. Intellectual wellness is about expanding your knowledge and skills through continued learning, productive curiosity, creativity thinking and exploration. iStock/Getty Images Plus

This effect on the brain is not temporary. "It has a lasting, positive impact on brain function and neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to change and adapt from experience," McCoy added.

Studies have shown that regular, daily engagement in physical activity – particularly in children and teens – will enhance development in areas of the brain that are responsible for "executive function," he noted.

Executive function is important for a group of essential cognitive skills that allow us to "mentally multi-task," meaning mentally work with and remember several things at once while maintaining focus and filtering out distractions and even make creative adjustments "on the fly."

So bearing all of this in mind, one way to certainly improve intellectual wellness is to maintain a physically active lifestyle to "help keep the brain engaged and happy," McCoy said.

Intellectual Wellness Activities

Reading

Among the easiest activities for improving intellectual wellness is reading more literature, according to Ebinger. This can include reading classics or contemporary works and learning more about current events. "Constant learning always happens to those working on improving their intellectual wellness," he said.

Ebinger also recommends combining different elements of intellectual wellness. For example, "I might be involved with continuous learning as I read the works of Goethe [poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] and listen to those words placed in a classical music composition.

"There might also be a creative side to that when I play a piece based on a poem or prose work by Goethe or composers like [Johannes] Brahms," he added.

A woman reading book near orange wall.
A woman reading a book against a bright orange wall backdrop. Reading is one of the easiest ways to increase your intellectual wellness. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Engaging Your Imagination

Ebinger explained: "Engaging with one's imagination is a sure way to build a connection to intellectual wellness and increasing the fluency with intellectual wellness."

Get Outside and Play

As mentioned, physical activity keeps the brain fit, McCoy said, as it will activate the neurotransmitters in the brain and get it "wired and fired."

Even just going for walks with your children can have a "dramatic impact" on their intellectual wellness, according to McCoy. He recommends making this a part of your regular family routine.

"I hike out in nature most every day. I find that when my body is in motion and my mind is relaxed, my mind becomes more creative and I come up with some of my best ideas," he said.

Two hikers looking out over mountains.
Two hikers looking out over mountains. The same areas of the brain responsible for cognitive thinking tasks are activated and developed during physical activity. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Brain and Body Power Naps

Giving your brain and body a rest can actually increase your brain power, McCoy said. Taking five minutes a day to sit or lay down and practice some form of mindful meditation can "do wonders" for your body and brain.

For those who may not even have five minutes to spare or who find it too long (especially kids and teenagers), the same benefits can be achieved by taking as little as 30 seconds to "sit, relax and do some deep breathing."

Even just five breaths can offer a nice brain and body power nap. "Breathe in positivity and happiness, breathe out 'clutter'," he said.

A woman napping on a couch.
A woman sleeping on a couch. Taking five minutes sit or lay down, such as by taking a nap, can do wonders for your body and brain. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Hang Out with Your Buddies

According to McCoy, studies have shown that spending time with friends and loved ones on a regular basis will increase not only your level of happiness but even your lifespan. "Socializing, talking, exchanging ideas is like health food for the brain," he explained.

Update 03/31/22, 12:25 p.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect Randy McCoy's new job title.

A group of friends chatting and laughing.
A group of friends chatting and laughing in a backyard. Studies have show regularly spending time with friends and loved ones can increase not only your level of happiness but also your lifespan. iStock/Getty Images Plus