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Douglas LaBier

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The Changing Face of Psychological Health

Posted: 01/12/11 09:34 AM ET

The aftermath of the Tucson shootings is likely to spawn new discussion about serious mental illness and its legal implications. Coincidentally, the mental health establishment has been debating what to include or exclude as a mental and emotional disorder, for the forthcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For example, one controversy is whether to remove narcissism as a bonafide disorder.

In contrast to discussion about mental disorders, I think we've neglected its flip side: What constitutes psychological health in today's world? What does it look like? And how can you promote it in your own life, your children and in society?

These questions loom large because the most psychologically healthy people and societies will be best equipped to create and sustain well-being, security and success in the tumultuous road we're now traveling on.

Take a look: At the start of this second decade of the 21st Century our lives and institutions are reeling, trying to cope with an interconnected, unpredictable world turned upside down by the events of the first decade: terrorism that's come home to roost; economic meltdown at home and abroad; rapid rise of previously "underdeveloped" nations; and in our social and political spheres, the rise of hatred, bigotry and intolerance, as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupik commented on following the Tucson shootings. This upheaval has fueled what I described in recent posts a "social psychosis" that's locked in conflict with a societal need to serve the common good.

The problem is that we know what severe mental illness as well as "garden variety" neurotic conflicts look like in daily life. Those have become more prevalent in the current climate. But what we think of as psychological health is pretty vague. Moreover, it's a 20th Century view that doesn't fit in the new world environment.

That is, psychological health has been pretty much defined as successful resolution and management of childhood traumas and conflicts; coping with stress and adapting to the world around you, as an adult. The problem is, that view has assumed a relatively stable and static world. One in which you can anticipate the kinds of changes or events that might occur. And when they do, a healthy, resilient person could bounce back to the previous equilibrium that existed. But today, there's no longer any equilibrium to return to. Psychological health requires living with disequilibrium.

Moreover, the 20th Century view equated psychologically healthy with adapting to the values and behavior that were culturally rewarded. For example, adversarial competition; power-seeking for oneself; consuming material goods; living with trade-offs between your personal values and outward behavior; depleting resources in disregard for future generations. And that didn't even work so well in the 20th Century: Some years ago I documented the emotional downside of with this kind of "successful" adaptation, in "Modern Madness."

More recently, the Huffington Post blogger Tijana Milosevic described, from her European perspective, the negative side of American's workaholism and hyper-focus on careerism. Economists and business writers such as Umair Haque in his Harvard Business Review blog and new book, "The New Capitalist Manifesto," are also criticizing the 20th Century model of success and well-being as undermining positive development of our institutions in today's current world.

In short, the prevailing old model creates, rather than diminishes psychological dysfunction and disturbance. It provides no useful guidance towards healthy living today, when people's careers are uncertain, businesses struggle to stay afloat, relationships shatter with changing life goals and personal values, affairs and divorce; and when the public is confused and adversarial about the role of government in people's lives. Moreover, old "truths" in several areas are found either to don't work or to reflect established beliefs rather than actual evidence, as a recent New Yorker article revealed. Given all this, here's some suggestions for beginning to redefine and rethink the essentials for a psychologically healthy life in the world we now live in. They reflect the likelihood that people who thrive in this new era will share some common features.

Overall, think of psychological health as an overall mentality of using emotional, cognitive, creative and relationship capacities in ways that help sustain and enhance the well-being of all, based on the recognition that all lives are interconnected and interdependent.

Put differently, this view of health reflects embracing a set of values -- what a person believes in as important or vital in life; what he or she wants to use their powers for. For example, someone's values might include, self-aggradizement, subjugation of others, power-lust and so forth. Such values fuel unhealthy behavior because they undermine rather than enhance well-being for all people. Ultimately, they lead to some form of dysfunction in relationships and career.

In contrast, values that are the underpinnings of psychological health include, for example, positive, supportive engagement with and respect toward diverse people; actions that contribute to the well-being of all, not just oneself; collaboration and compromise to achieve shared goals; self-regulation of stress through honest self-examination and reflection.

Values are a foundation for health. Then, several capacities support psychologically healthy living. Here are two important ones that research has confirmed.

Positive Emotions
We now know that you can train the brain to build new capacities, through meditation and "practice." Among the most important for psychological health are empathy and compassion. These capacities enable to you develop greater wisdom and effectiveness in dealing with problems.

This reflects what researchers call the neuroplasticity of the brain. Recently, the eminent neurologist Oliver Sachs described the remarkable capacity of the brain to learn and regenerate. Research also shows that positive emotions increase your capacity for resilience by strengthening your ability to handle stress and adversity.

Broadened Perspectives
This is the capacity to step "outside" of yourself and view problems from an enlarged viewpoint, including that of people you disagree with. In a previous post I've used the term "constructive disengagement" to describe this as a positive way to handle relationship conflicts. Research shows that you can move forward, emotionally, when you detach yourself; that is, disengage from the emotions that have been stirred up. In fact, we now know that even the infant is able to recognize another's point of view.

Another aspect of a broadened perspective that research confirms is that you can enhance your cognitive powers for problem-solving when you engage in positive rather than adversarial relations with others. Moreover, other research shows the positive benefit of simply behaving contrary to your usual personality traits -- another form of stepping "outside" of yourself.

Of course, building positive emotions and enlarging your perspectives are intertwined. Actions that strengthen one also strengthen the other. These are just two capacities that I think are part of a psychological health, today. They support the behavior that will be increasingly recognized as essential for creating and building lives and institutions that sustain, grow and develop in our interconnected world. For example, being able to let go of purely self-interest as the driver of one's relationships and work. Being flexible, transparent and nimble. Shifting and redeploying emotional, creative and other capacities towards positive engagement and collaboration, in order to achieve common goals. That is what supports both outward success and internal well being. And that's psychologically healthy.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

 
 
 

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