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What Psychological Health Looks Like

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MENTAL HEALTH

My previous post, "The Changing Face of Psychological Health," provoked a number of comments about serious mental illness. That was understandable, especially in the light of the Tucson shootings. But they also missed the point of my post: That we lack a clear, relevant description of what psychological health is, in today's world; and, how you can build it. So in this post I describe more about what a psychologically healthy life looks like, today -- in your relationships, your work, and in your role as a "future ancestor."

First, keep in mind that psychological health isn't the same as the absence of mental or emotional disorders. For example, you can't say that a happy person is someone who's not depressed. Many people have consulted me who aren't depressed by clinical criteria, but they aren't happy with their work, relationships or their overall lives, either.

Moreover, self-awareness isn't equivalent to health. It's a necessary underpinning, but it's not enough. Therapists often help their patients deepen self-awareness about the roots of their conflicts, only to wonder why they remain the same. Psychiatrist Richard Friedman described that dilemma in a recent New York Times article in which he illustrated the puzzlement practitioners experience when they are confronted with the limitation of awareness, alone.

To the extent there's a conventional view of psychological health at all, it's mostly equated with good life-management and coping skills. That is, managing stress in your work and personal life, and coping with -- if not resolving -- whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood.

A less visible view of psychological health also exists: Successful adaptation to and embracing of the dominant values, behavior and attitudes of the society or milieu you're a part of. The problem here is that such socially-conditioned norms have also embodied greed, self-absorption, domination, destructiveness and divisiveness. They've been equated with "success" in adult life.

The upshot is that you can be well-adapted to dominant attitudes and behavior that are, themselves, psychologically unhealthy. So you may be "well-adjusted" to an unhealthy life.

We've been witnessing the fruits of that form of "health" throughout our society in recent years, in the form of dysfunctional lives and failing institutions. Part of the reason is that we now live in a highly interconnected, unpredictable, digitalized world of "non-equilibrium." It presents new challenges for individual lives and society. That's why I believe we need to revamp our thinking about psychological health, to take account of the new realities and challenges of our post-9/11, post-economic meltdown, 21st Century world.

So, I propose that psychological health -- in emotions, attitudes, mental outlook and behavior -- consists of whatever builds, creates, grows and sustains; rather than that which exploits, extracts or destroys.

That definition of psychological health, for individuals, institutions and public policies, is grounded in explicit values: Building and creating for all, rather than consuming and taking for the benefit of the few.

Those values, in turn, steer you towards wanting to develop and engage your human capacities in the service of something larger than just amassing or extracting benefits for yourself. That focus is what's known as the "common good," which, I argued in a previous post, is on the rise in our society.

To clarify, it may sound contradictory that if you "forget yourself," so to speak, you'll grow your own mental, emotional and creative capacities and become psychologically healthier. But the fact is, you stagnate when you overly dwell on yourself -- just your own needs, desires, slights, complaints about others, and so on. In contrast, building psychological health today occurs by putting your energies in the service of something larger than just your narrow self-interest. That is, towards common goals, purposes or missions that require contributing and creating; not just consuming and extracting value for yourself.

The positive emotions and broadened perspectives I wrote about in my last post are important sources of health because they grow your inner life, which is the wellspring of healthy actions in your outer life of relationships, work, and your conduct as a citizen and future ancestor. In the outer world, psychological health is visible, for example, in being highly proactive and innovative; positive connection with diverse people; flexibility in situations of conflict; using the anxiety that's always present in life as a guide to wise judgment and action. And overall, being nimble, flexible, and adaptive to the changes and the unpredictable events that are part of life in our new era.

Here are three realms where you can see how those qualities come alive:

At Work -- Psychologically healthy behavior includes collaboration, non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mindset, and ease of engagement, as a team member and with the overall objectives or mission. It includes tuning in to the whole picture, in which you're one player, while finding ways to make a positive contribution. In short, psychological health at work is visible in being collaborative rather than self-promoting at others' expense.

In Your Relationship -- Building a healthy relationship is thwarted by self-oriented maneuvering, dominating or subtly manipulating your partner to get your own needs and desires met, often at the expense of the relationship itself. Psychological health here includes transparency with your partner, two-way openness, a shared vision of partnership and way of life that both of you are committed to creating. Mutual respect, authenticity and power-sharing promotes the relationship between you, not just the self-focused aim of "getting my needs met."

As A Future Ancestor -- Healthy behavior here reflects the desire to act in ways that help preserve and sustain resources and a healthy planet for yourself and for those who will be here after your time is over. John Friedman, Senior Director for Public Relations at Sodexo, recently described this in Forbes as "the compelling concept of a shared fate." That is, psychological health in this realm is visible through actions in daily life, in business and public policy that promote and sustain the well-being of the human community and the planet.

I encourage discussion and criticism around these ideas, and I'll be writing more about reframing and redefining psychological health in our 21st Century world... so stay tuned!

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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