What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Healthy?

Enough books and articles have been written on mental illness to fill an entire library. And most therapists, counsellors, and psychiatrists spend their whole career trying to heal and repair the mentally ill. Yet surprisingly little attention is paid to those who enjoy exceptional mental health. Even the most optimistic of professionals seem to have modest ambitions. If they can return a depressive or agoraphobic to ordinary, humdrum existence, they are content. Freud himself remarked that his followers could hope merely to restore their patients to a state of “common unhappiness.”

Those suffering from mental ill-health are often contrasted with the ordinary “man-in-the-street”. But just because this average Joe isn’t crippled by anxiety, obsessions, or insomnia, that does not mean he is mentally healthy. People should aim higher. If you wished to be a great actor, for example, you would study Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet rather than a talentless, pretty-faced Hollywood star. Instead of concentrating on what it means to be coping, it would be wiser to concentrate on what it means to be thriving!

Those with exceptionally good mental health tend to possess some, or all, of the following traits:

1) A positive attitude. Their basic attitude or outlook is positive. This does not mean they are simple-minded or naive of course, neither does it mean they go through life with an inane grin on their face. On the contrary, they are grounded in reality. But their basic stance towards the world is affirmative. They are curious, interested, and open. People fascinate them and new ideas excite them. They rarely say “I’m bored,” “who cares?” or “what’s the point?” In essence, they are grateful to be alive. And this positivity tends to be mixed with fearlessness. Again, this is not taken to an extreme; they are not reckless. But they do embrace life. They will try a sushi restaurant, visit an exotic city, or take up salsa dancing without fear of ridicule or failure. If they do make fools of themselves, they simply join in the laughter and try something else.

2) A realistic attitude. It is often said that mental health can be measured by how closely someone’s view of reality matches actual reality. A psychotic, for example, has entirely lost touch with reality. Of course, most people are not psychotic; but many do interpret the world to fit how they wish it was. The mentally healthy are neither pessimists nor optimists. They see the world as it really is, without escaping into fantasy. Because of this, they are able to respond quickly and effectively during times of crisis. Many people find life disappointing. But rather than trying to alter their life, they escape into fantasy. For example, someone with financial problems might believe they have a “system” for beating the casino and blow what little money they have left. Or they will convince themselves that their son is a gifted footballer who will some day be signed by Manchester United. In the hope that he will fulfil their dream, they then push and bully him until he breaks down.

3) Freedom from self-pity. Strong, happy people acknowledge the bad times. They will admit to feeling sad, lonely, bored, or heartbroken. Avoiding self-pity is not the same as denying or repressing negative emotions. In fact, the mentally healthy are usually more honest and open about their pain and suffering. But they do not feel sorry for themselves. Again, this is partly due to their realism. They never say “why me?” because they are perfectly aware that the universe could respond “why not you?” They know that the world is a hard place and never forget that countless individuals suffer the most horrendous things. Far too many people go through life convinced that they have had a raw deal. They feel entitled to more love, fun, and happiness than they are getting. Others never feel this sense of entitlement in the first place.

4) An openness to love. Many people have a twisted, unhealthy attitude towards love. They claim to love unconditionally when in truth their love is anything but unconditional. Relationships too often resemble business arrangements: “I will give you x amount of love on condition that you give me the same amount of love and support in return.” But love should never be seen as an investment. The mentally healthy give love freely and unconditionally. It flows from them. In part, this is because they do not see other people as objects to be used and manipulated for their own gain. Another reason is that, though they find it easy to love, they also find it easy to let go. In other words, they do not cling. They are self-sufficient and self-reliant. In turn, this means their relationships are stronger and healthier. They enter into them and commit through choice, not because they are afraid of being alone.

5) An ability to adjust to change. The more people resist and fight change, the more they suffer. Those who enjoy excellent mental health seem to thrive on change, embracing rather than enduring it. This may be due in part to their open, generous, loving attitude. Because of this they draw in love and affection, providing them with a safety net when things go wrong. And thanks to their realistic understanding of the world, they know that change alone is constant and that nothing lasts. So when their children leave home, or their boss makes them redundant, they aren’t surprised. Most people know these things happen; they know their parents will get old and die, that marriages go through bad times, that recessions hit, and so on, but at a deeper, subconscious level they refuse to accept such things.

6) An awareness of their limitations. Many people never accept their limitations and go through life clinging on to all sorts of unrealistic hopes and dreams. When they fail, they then transfer these hopes on to their children, bullying and pressuring them until they snap. Of course, there is nothing wrong with hoping to be a famous singer, international model, or published novelist, but in reality your chances are small. Most people are mediocre; only a minority are blessed with intellectual brilliance, sporting talent, or artistic genius. The mentally healthy know this. They do not put themselves down, but they are aware of their limitations and have reconciled themselves to these limitations.

These traits rarely exist alone. In fact, they usually feed into and strengthen one another. For example, someone whose understanding of reality closely matches actual reality will probably be aware of, and reconciled to, their limitations; they will also be prepared for, and able to adapt to, change. And because they are open to love, giving freely and expecting nothing in return, they are loved back and have people they can turn to when disaster strikes. If you lack self-pity, you will soon recover from setbacks and find it easier to embrace and love life.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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