THE BLOG
04/10/2014 10:32 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

How You Can 'Grow' Your Mental Health

Despite our advances in understanding and treating emotional problems and the more serious mental disorders, we don't know much about what mental health is, in contrast. I've been thinking about this lack for the last several years, and it was brought to mind again recently by the comments of two psychotherapy patients. As I reflected on them, in relation to some recent research findings from outside the mental health field, it struck me that we can identify some features of a psychologically healthy life in today's tumultuous, stressed out, digitalized world.

In fact, there's a great deal of information that you can use and apply in your daily life to increase your mental health. But you're more likely to find it from outside the mental health profession than within it.

To explain, consider this 40-year-old woman. Her career and family life feel to her like running on a permanent treadmill. She's been depressed for years, and her long-standing use of anti-depressant drugs doesn't make much of a dent. Moreover, they create many side effects. Nonetheless, she won't consider how some research-based alternatives suggest ways she might help herself. She's terrified that she'll become more depressed if she tapers off her medications.

Then there's the man with a successful career and seemingly stable marriage. He tells me that despite feeling "pretty normal," now -- he had several years of therapy in the past that helped him with some lifelong relationship issues -- he experiences a kind of dullness in life. He works hard, is engaged with his wife and children, but feels little spark or excitement about his day-to-day existence, now or in the future.

Neither person knows what a fully healthy life would look like, or that they might be able to "grow" it. That's understandable: Ironically, the mental health field doesn't really deal with mental health.

My profession has done a great deal to sharpen diagnosing and identifying psychiatric symptoms. And it's helped enormously to de-stigmatize seeking help and encourage greater resources for treatment. But the mental health field has become immersed in describing symptoms of emotional disorder, to an extreme. Along the way it's lost sight of what mental health is, beyond healing. Beyond effective management and control of early trauma and other experiences that give rise to symptoms like anxiety and depression, which so many people bring into psychotherapy. Consequently, the public assumes that keeping symptoms quelled and dysfunction well-managed is equivalent to health.

But it's not. Creating a vision of what psychological health looks like in today's world -- and what it requires for your bio-psycho-social being (these dimensions are all interconnected) -- is a challenge. But it's possible, if we look at some unlikely sources. These include a variety of research findings and other sources of information. Most aren't directly related to mental heath, but many coalesce into some indicators about what a psychologically healthy life looks like, and how you can "grow" it. Some examples:

  • Happiness is highly linked with self-awareness, self-acceptance and compassion towards oneself and towards others.
  • You can learn to alter your brain functioning, your consciousness, attitudes and behavior. Research using functional MRIs shows that meditative practice strengthens areas of the brain associated with self-regulation of emotions, calm, cognitive focus, and empathy towards others.
  • Practicing mindfulness -- paying attention to your current thoughts and feelings, and observing them in a non-judgmental manner -- improves self-knowledge.
  • Workers who report greatest happiness and fulfillment describe a culture of opportunity for growth, learning, and having impact on something larger than just their paycheck or career advancement. The venture capitalist Ben Horowitz has emphasized the importance of "the contribution you can make, that you're being part of something bigger than yourself."
  • Happy workers have higher productivity and creativity than less-happy workers. Another study found that productivity rises in the presence of bosses who support learning and growth.

A Convergence Of Themes

These seemingly unrelated studies suggest some elements of a psychologically healthy life in today's world. First, it's important to realize that you're not imprisoned by your genes. Epigenetic research shows that how your genetic tendencies are expressed -- or aren't -- is shaped by your choices and life experiences. The depressed patient I described above, afraid of life without her medication, unwilling to consider how she might create a more emotionally fulfilling life, keeps herself imprisoned, unnecessarily, by her belief that she's "fixed" in this way.

Nor does one have to live within a state of comfortable deadness, as the man I described who sees no other way of being. Yet there are pathways to greater vitality, aliveness and creative pleasure in life that people do experience and create for themselves, in personal life and in their careers.

One theme connecting many of the above findings is that your internal wellbeing and external success are linked with serving something larger than just your own wants and desires. Having impact on something greater than just yourself is key. It might be the relationship between you and your partner, as a third entity in it's own right. Or positive engagement with others aimed at success with the joint mission or project. Or more generally, engaging with others in with mindful awareness that we're all interdependent and interconnected in this complex, ever-changing world.

Overall, this general theme points to a psychologically healthy life as a state of integration: Of self-regulation of emotions; cognitive focus, moment-to-moment; values, attitudes and behavior that support wellbeing in both yourself and others; and physical-dietary practices that are linked with them.

These are just some initial thoughts. We mental health professionals need to focus much more on identifying and emphasizing what psychological health really means in our current world. And, how we can help people learn to build it in daily life.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.