How do Highly Sensitive Individuals Maintain their Wellbeing?
17th March 2022 - By Becky Black
About the authors
Becky Black is in the final stages of her PhD candidacy at the Centre for Wellbeing Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests focus on individual differences in wellbeing, particularly the intersection between personality, wellbeing, and culture.
In Western cultures, lay perceptions and norms around wellbeing tend to emphasise being socially outgoing and high-arousal positive emotions, but not all people experience wellbeing in this way. In our study, we set out to explore what highly sensitive people do to maintain their wellbeing.
Around the world, people are increasingly interested in wellbeing – what it is and how we can improve it. In order to help build wellbeing, we first need to know how wellbeing looks for different people.
Although sensitive individuals represent about 20-30% of the general population (2), we know very little about what they do to build and maintain their wellbeing.
Some highly sensitive people living in Western cultures do achieve high levels of wellbeing (1). But how do they do this?
In an initial study (1), we conducted an online survey where we asked 430 Australian adult participants to complete a range of personality and wellbeing scales (including the Highly Sensitive Person [HSP] scale). We identified 37 participants with high wellbeing as well as high sensitivity.
We then interviewed 12 of these participants in semi-structured, in-depth interviews about their wellbeing. The participants (1 male, 11 female) ranged in age from 19-69 years.
What were our key findings?
After transcribing and analysing the interviews, three key themes emerged: 1) perceptions of wellbeing, 2) enablers of wellbeing, and 3) barriers of wellbeing. See Table 1 for the three themes and the associated dimensions.
Perceptions of wellbeing
All the interviewees spoke about wellbeing as having multiple dimensions, such as emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and social/relational.
Most participants specifically mentioned that they preferred low-arousal positive emotions, like feeling calm, relaxed, and peaceful. For example, one shared: “for me, it’s a less exuberant happiness, and more the kind of contented, softer, and being comfortable in my space and with myself.”
All participants noted that they liked to have a balance between the different wellbeing areas such as “negative emotion, positive emotion, feelings of connectedness with other people”.
Enablers of wellbeing
All interviewees reported that regular experiences of solitude were vital for their wellbeing, emphasising that “alone time is very important.” Most participants actively sought out alone time and built it into their daily lives.
A majority shared how practising emotion regulation had helped boost their wellbeing, for example, through consciously taking time to respond to negative stress and emotion, or by re-framing their internal dialogue.
Most interviewees spoke about self-awareness and self-acceptance and how recognising their own wellbeing needs was important. For example, “I’m a lot more aware, physically, of the sensations of stress in my body”. Another noted that part of wellbeing was “knowing when I need help and requesting it.”
All participants believed that self-compassion was important for their wellbeing, for example, using self-talk such as being able to “forgive myself for mistakes.” One noted that self-compassion helped relieve her stress, “if you’re hard on yourself all the time, then you can never not be stressed.”
All interviewees shared that regular contemplative practices (such as meditation or mindfulness) were a key part of their wellbeing. This took the form of daily walking and connecting with nature, yoga or tai chi, reading a book, or engaging in craft activities.
Most participants specifically noted that close, supportive relationships helped to boost their wellbeing, and many shared how they had a small, select circle of friends, preferring to spend time “one-on-one with my friends.”
Barriers of wellbeing
Being able to say “no” to requests on their time was a common difficulty amongst interviewees. Half of them shared how they continued to build their skills in this area and had improved over time.
For example, one shared, “I just use Spoon theory. It’s where you wake up every morning and you’ve got so many spoons, and it might take a spoon to have a shower, and a spoon to complete a certain task. And every morning when you wake up you don’t always have the same amount of spoons. So, I’ve learnt to say I don’t have the spoons for it.”
What does this mean?
Our study suggests that highly sensitive people can experience high levels of wellbeing but what is of particular importance to them is actively choosing regular solitude time. Our participants also noted that self-awareness, self-acceptance, connecting with nature, and contemplative practices were beneficial to their wellbeing.
The findings from our study suggest that highly sensitive people can help build and maintain their wellbeing by including the following practices:
- Enjoying regular periods of solitude
- Building self-awareness (e.g., tune in and mindfully observe your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours)
- Self-acceptance (e.g., value your whole self regardless of accomplishments or mistakes)
- Self-compassion (e.g., speak to yourself as if speaking to a best friend)
- Some form of contemplative practice (e.g., mindfulness, meditation, tai chi)
- Connecting with nature (e.g., walking, exercising in forests or by the beach, swimming in lakes, or the ocean, etc.)
- Emotional self-regulation (e.g., taking a pause between feeling an emotion and acting)
- Having a sense of meaning in life (e.g., connecting with your unique ‘why’)
Key themes and dimensions identified in the interviews
|Perceptions of wellbeing||Balance|
|Important dimensions of wellbeing|
|Perceptions of wellbeing|
|Enablers of Wellbeing||Connecting with nature|
|Daily wellbeing practices|
|Low intensity positive emotion|
|Positive perception of SPS|
|Small circle of friends|
|Weekly wellbeing practice|
|Barriers of Wellbeing||Challenges to wellbeing|
|Dimensions to work on|
|Other factors||Past depression/anxiety/trauma|
|Extraversion and SPS|
|Knowledge of SPS
- Black, B. A., & Kern, M. L. (2020). Personality and flourishing: Exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity and wellbeing in an Australian adult population [Unpublished manuscript].
- Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., Pluess, M., Bruining, H., Acevedo, B. P., Bijttebier, P., & Homberg, J. R. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98(March), 287-305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009