What Is Psychological Health in the 21st Century?

05/14/2010 12:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Douglas LaBier Business psychologist and psychotherapist; director, Center for Progressive Development

A woman who consulted me recently began saying, even before she sat down, "I don't know whether to reach for the Prozac....or Prilosec!"

Her grim humor masked her "recession depression" and other emotional battering. I've witnessed a great deal of that in the last few years: Career and financial worries or losses; the ripple effect of those upon family life; anxieties about what sort of future one's children are headed into, especially with climate change and terrorist threats; and the increasingly polarized views about our government's role in people's lives.

Research and clinical observation show that these concerns are taking a psychological toll on relationships, families, career expectations, and on people's entire sense of what they're living and working for -- their life purpose. People want to stay resilient in the face of them. The problem is that our understanding of emotional resilience - and, more broadly, psychological health - doesn't mesh with today's realities. Conventional descriptions of resilience and how to build it don't enable you to handle the challenges and stresses we face in a 21st Century world.

Let me explain. Resilience is defined as the ability to cope successfully with misfortune or traumatic events; being able to bounce back from adversity and keep on going. What helps you do that includes, for example, reviewing your strengths, focusing on positive thoughts and feelings, learning stress management, looking down the road to what you can manage better. And, psychotherapy and medication if you're unable to bounce back very well on your own.

But all of the above was more relevant to 20th Century life. Then, the adversity and disruptions you were likely to experience were more stable, in a sense. The world was more predictable, more linear, with respect to the kinds of stresses and disruptions that would occur - as emotionally troubling as they might be.

Most of our thinking about resilience and healthy functioning, then, fits a world in which unanticipated negative events are fairly predictable. They follow a fairly understandable course, following which you can reasonably anticipate returning to some form of stability. In that world, wars eventually ended. The economy went through recessions, then recovered. You might suffer a career or relationship setback but could assume that there was a path to recovery.

That notion of resilience and how to build it remains an important foundation for mental health. But it doesn't help much when you're faced with the challenges of today's environment. That's because that view of resilience and the strategies for bouncing back are reactive. They focus on responding to something that happens to you, rather than on what you need to be doing proactively, as part of your way of life.

Starting with 9-11, and especially since the economic meltdown that began in the fall of 2008, we've been living in a world that's rapidly transforming. Today's world is an inter-connected, interdependent, diverse, unpredictable and unstable global community. And that's created new psychological challenges for everyone, challenges that require a highly proactive mentality.

Unfortunately, those of us in the mental health professions haven't been much help with that. Most continue to look through the rear-view mirror, and see a model of psycho-logical health defined by coping with and managing conflicts in relationships and the workplace. Conflicts you can bounce back from and reestablish some kind of stability, while continuing to pursue self-interest -- getting your needs met, your personal goals achieved, your "happiness" acquired.

But today's world of ongoing disruptions, continuous uncertainties and insecurity has become the new normal. Seeking to bounce back to stability and assuming that self-interest, alone, is the pathway to success, health and well being, isn't the right ticket.

That is, there's no longer a state of equilibrium you can bounce back to. In this highly diverse, interdependent, interconnected world trying to do so is a quick trip dysfunction and derailment. You can't reestablish equilibrium within a constantly shifting world.

But engaging these new realities in positive ways will support success and well being. Research shows that you can proactively build specific emotions, thoughts and actions that are healthier adaptations to life in the non-equilibrium world we now live within. That's encouraging, because I think we're evolving towards a new definition of psycho-logical health via rethinking resilience.

The criteria of a new, proactive resiliency may sound contradictory because they include letting go of self-interest in your relationships and work. Proactive resilience emphasizes being flexible, open and nimble; being able to shift and redeploy your personal resources - emotional, creative, intellectual - towards positive engagement with others.

That is, resiliency grows from putting your energies, your values, emotional attitudes and actions in the service of the common good - something larger than just yourself. That's what supports both success in your outside life and internal well being. In today's rapidly transforming world, you need both.

In future posts I'll describe more about this new model of resiliency and psychological health, and how it helps you deal with conflicts around sex and love, career uncertainties, and the challenges of being a global citizen - which we all are, today.

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