A yardstick definition of good mental health
On World Mental Health day, 10th October, it is worth considering: what is ‘good’ mental health?
One of my favourite yardstick answers to the question of what constitutes good mental health (as opposed to poor mental health, or mental illness), is this: a person who is mentally healthy will have a reasonably accurate perception of reality.
Not only will they have an accurate-enough perception of their own nature and what motivates them, ie, their own internal world; but also they would be fairly astute as to what makes the external world tick. They would have a capacity for compassion, tolerance and understanding in regard to other people and cultures.
I have spent decades trawling hundreds of psychological and spiritual books, searching for inspirational nuggets about what helps us to grow, mature, and blossom into a psychologically healthy adulthood that can steward us well in the endeavour to lead a good life.
It seems one of the most important contributors to enduring good mental health is the willingness to reflect on our own thoughts and behaviour and ultimately become more accountable – not only to others – but importantly, to ourselves. To be willing to review our behaviour with an aim to do a bit better next time, next opportunity. Not in a punitive way – but in a firm, kind and committed way.
Both the positive psychology movement and neuroscience in the last couple of decades has begun to tap into a rich vein of profound wisdom that mystical traditions like Buddhism and Sufism have been mining with deep discrimination for centuries.
Modern psychological researcher, Martin Seligman, has identified three main roads to what he calls “authentic happiness”.
- First, there is the pursuit of simple or momentary pleasures – experiences that are fun or exciting. These however don’t make for lasting happiness.
- Secondly, there is the satisfaction that comes from the capacity for absorption and engagement in personally worthwhile endeavours.
- Thirdly, and most powerfully, is the deep and lasting fulfilment that comes from dedication to some cause greater than oneself. The sense of being useful and effective – whether at work or at play – helps energise us to serve ourselves and our communities at the same time, which in turn can help us protect other species and the delicately balanced ecosystem of our fragile planet.
Defining good character
A wonderful book by David Brooks, called The Road to Character, describes two kinds of virtues – the “resume” virtues and the “eulogy” virtues.
- The “resume” virtues are our ambitions and actions that are easily recognised by the external world. They are the kind of achievements we might list on our CV.
- The “eulogy” virtues are developed and judged by ourselves, for our own sake, in our own inner moral chamber. They are what used to be referred to as “good character”.
The “eulogy” attributes are the ones that others will remember us for at our funeral – whether we have been kind, compassionate, courageous, diligent, loyal – and importantly, what kind of relationships we formed. Whether we were a good friend, parent, or citizen.
Developing more accurate perceptions
There can be great value – when anxiety, stress or depression strikes – in taking time out to examine the thoughts and emotions that drive us there by default. Sometimes an overhaul of these can be helpful.
Many people suffering anxiety for instance, are way too harsh on themselves, and not firm enough in demanding respect from others.
It is worth the trouble it takes to earn our own self-respect. It is worth “sharpening the saw” as author Stephen Covey recommends in his classic book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
In so doing, we tend to monitor and direct ourselves through all the minefields of life, in a way that contributes to what I think of as good mental health.
I have seen over and over again that it tends to be those for whom the outer life presents the most difficult circumstances, that tend to get propelled, pushed or prodded to dig deep into their inner motivations, who ultimately grow the most in forming mature and accurate perceptions of reality.
What helps us move towards more accurate perceptions?
In order to learn to love ourselves and others well, we need to examine, quell and master our unwise thoughts, instead of being buffeted around and driven by them like a helpless puppet.
Therapy, meditation and mindfulness practice help immeasurably in coming to know and train our minds to serve us and others better, just as the vitality of exercise fine-tunes our bodies.
You might ask why we would bother with holding ourselves to high moral standards? To be seen as good person and get a pat on the back? No. Because it works. Because greater mental discipline leads to a better life, greater life satisfaction and fulfilment, and ultimately, ‘good’ mental health.
Dr Margo Orum is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Open Sky Psychology in Ryde, www.openskypsychology.com.au. Ph 1300 296 641.