Ten Tips for Maintaining Psychological Health
The Part of Tens
In This Chapter
There’s no magic formula — and no standard — for being a psychologically healthy person. Is psychological health simply the absence of mental disease or mental illness? If so, a lot of people are perfectly healthy from a psychological standpoint. Is the absence of physical disease the same thing as being physically healthy? Some people think that there’s more to being healthy than being disease-free. Unfortunately, this chapter doesn’t give you all the answers to these questions. In fact, it probably creates more questions than answers.
Psychologists are not necessarily in the business of deciding the values of a society. A lot of scientists think that values are beyond the scope of science, that values and morals are too subjective and personal to be reduced to scientific analysis. But some psychologists believe that psychological health is as close to a universal value as any. After all, who doesn’t want to be healthy?
Psychology has uncovered a lot about human thinking and behavior over the years, and it would be a waste not to try to apply some of that knowledge to the human quest for well-being, happiness, and health. I agree that psychologists may be overstepping their bounds when they advocate a particular set of values.
But, as a professor of mine once said, “That’s an empirical question, isn’t it?” What he meant is that opinions can be evaluated empirically, and one opinion can be judged with respect to another as long as agreed-upon criteria for evaluating the opinions are in place. In other words, researchers may actually be able to evaluate the “good life” with psychological science as long as they can all agree upon a definition of what the good life is. For example, I may agree that a good life is one in which my needs are met without much effort and I’m relatively free to do what I please. With that, researchers can scientifically evaluate circumstances, behaviors, and thought processes that lead to such conditions. If researchers can agree upon a standard, they can investigate what contributes to the achievement of that standard.
Because this chapter is providing tips for psychological health, I need to set a standard. So here it is: I define psychological health broadly as optimal living. This is a safe position because individuals can tweak the meaning of optimal living to fit their own values.
My use of the term optimal living in this chapter takes a subjective view of psychological health. For years, psychologists have studied the concept of subjective well-being. This concept refers to my sense of personal well-being and happiness without reference to the views of anyone else. It represents my personal values, and it may or may not be in harmony with others around me.
Some philosophers have argued that it is morally preferable to hold values that correspond with the values of others or, at the very least, to hold values that don’t impinge upon or impact the values of others. Subscribing to a value system that doesn’t impact the values of others is the “different strokes for different folks” approach.
Another definition of psychological health is perhaps more objective. This definition holds that psychological health centers on behaviors and mental processes that lead to the ability to adjust and function well in one’s life. This view can also be subjective to some degree. For example, you may adjust quite well to prison, but this adjustment may involve behaviors that can be considered quite unhealthy in other contexts. But, for most people and societies, the norms for good adjustment and functioning often involve surviving within the typically acceptable rules and boundaries of a community.
At the very least, psychological health involves being happy. I’ve never met a person who didn’t want to be happy, even if being happy to him meant being miserable. You can’t escape the desire to be happy. That reminds me of a joke:
“Hit me, hit me!” says the masochist.
“No!” says the sadist.
Enough of the philosophical, let’s get down to practical suggestions. The following ten tips for maintaining psychological health are equally important. No one is more important than the others; that’s why they are not numbered.
A lot of popular psychology and self-help books tell us to “love ourselves.” It’s not a bad idea. Severe dislike for oneself is often associated with extreme guilt, shame, and depression. Don’t underestimate the power of believing in your abilities and valuing your uniqueness.
Too often, people lead inauthentic lives that are defined by others as they strive for acceptance. Self-acceptance is a crucial ingredient for motivation and positive emotion, and accepting yourself even leads to more acceptance by others. Accepting yourself is not the same as thinking you are perfect.
Strive for Self-Determination
When I feel like the captain of my own ship, I’m more interested in life, more excited about life, and more confident. My motivations are a complex mix of the things I truly want for myself and things I’ve adopted from significant others over the years.
Feeling as if I have some control over the decisions that affect me is crucial to psychological health. When I’m in controlling, punitive, or dominating environments, my sense of importance and freedom suffers.
Sometimes you need to adapt to the desires and values of others. In these situations, you can still retain a sense of self-determination if you agree even slightly with what you’re adapting to. What if you want to paint your house bright purple, but the city won’t let you? Well, if the officials can agree to lavender, then you probably don’t feel so pushed around. It’s rarely (if ever) a good thing for people to feel like they’re being told what to do when they don’t agree with the directive.
Stay Connected and Nurture Relationships
Sometimes it seems like modern lives are lonely. Everyone speeds around in their cars or stares into computer screens all day, isolated from other people and busy with the details of their own lives. I’ve often felt like I have to sacrifice productivity at work in order to socialize. I hear people make similar comments all the time, “I just don’t have time for friends and family.” Here’s a tip: Make time!
In these times of mega-cities and super-suburbs, it can be hard to stay close to friends and family. The age of the small town filled with extended family is all but gone. Small towns are out there, but most people don’t live in them. Despite these conditions, there is a benefit in working to maintain closer proximity to people who matter. The huge growth in mobile phone, Internet, and social media use may reflect both the desire to stay connected and an attempt to do so in a fragmented and fast-paced world.
Having friends and family around is nice, but it’s only a good thing if the relationships are good. Some people can’t wait to get as far away from certain people as possible. Feeling emotionally connected and supported by your relationships is just as important, if not more important, than simple proximity. People need intimate relationships that they can count on when times are hard. They need trustworthy romantic partners who value the same things.
Here are some other helpful hints for maintaining good relationships: Practice forgiveness, be tolerant, communicate honestly, express yourself, balance independence with dependence, and act responsibly toward others — and nurture their values, desires, feelings, and wishes.
Lend a Helping Hand
When you reach out to others in need, you often get a sense of mastery over my own circumstances, and you’re working to foster positive social conditions. Lending a helping hand helps the intended beneficiaries, and it also helps the individuals who offer the assistance. I won’t mention that there’s a nice tax break in it too. Win, win, win.
Find Meaning and Purpose and Work Toward Goals
Feeling like life is meaningless is a hallmark of depression. One of the drawbacks of modern society is the sense of alienation that can come from working day in and day out with only the next workday or the next paycheck as a reward.
It’s crucial to have meaningful personal goals. Research consistently finds that the process of working toward goals is as important as the goals themselves. At times, goals can be too lofty, and people can set themselves up for disappointment because they can’t reach them. This defeats the purpose of setting goals in the first place. Realistic and meaningful goals are helpful. Having goals is not the same as being perfectionistic. Perfectionists set themselves up to fail because no one is perfect. Being a little kind to yourself and understanding that you’re going to make mistakes in life is part of accepting yourself, and it’s good for your psychological health.
Find Hope and Maintain Faith
Research has consistently shown that having a deep sense of spiritual faith can be a protective measure for dealing with loss, illness, and psychological disorders. When things seem dark, it really helps to have a sense of hope and optimism about the future and a belief that goals can eventually be achieved.
Having a positivity bias helps to override fear and maintain motivation. Being biased in this way is kind of like seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Pessimists may claim that they’re more in touch with reality, but a little positive illusion never hurts.
Find Flow and Be Engaged
Professional athletes talk about “being in the groove” when they’ve had a good game. Flow is the experience of feeling totally engaged, involved, engrossed, and focused in an activity or experience. Living a happy life is a matter of learning to maximize and control inner experiences in order to feel harmoniously engaged in the activity for its own sake.
I once heard a piece of Buddhist wisdom: If you are thinking about resting while sweeping the floor, you are not truly experiencing life as it exists. When you sweep, sweep. When you rest, rest. Find flow!
Enjoy the Beautiful Things in Life
The ability to appreciate beauty is aesthetics. There’s a lot of negativity and ugliness in the world — wars, disease, violence, and degradation are all around. Depressing, right? Being able to appreciate the beautiful things is a saving grace in a world that’s so often unattractive.
The experience of beauty is personal and one that no one else can define for another person. You may see the beauty in a famous painting or the sun shining through the clouds. When I see a well-executed play in football, it brings tears to my eyes. “That’s beautiful, man!” Sniff, sniff.
Even things that are imperfect and incomplete can be beautiful, particularly if you are a practitioner of the “wabi-sabi” worldview derived from Buddhism. Finally, an excuse not to clean the house!
Struggle to Overcome; Learn to Let Go
Challenge and adversity are undeniable facts of life. Being able to effectively cope with challenges is crucial to maintaining psychological and even physical well-being. Each person has a variety of skills and techniques used to cope with stress and adversity. Here’s the best general advice for coping with adversity: Cope actively within situations that you have some measure of control over, and cope passively within situations that you don’t have control over.
Active coping involves taking actions to improve a situation such as looking for a job when you’re fired instead of just saying, “Oh well, I guess I just wasn’t meant to have a job.” In situations that you can control, such as many health-related problems, taking action consistently leads to better outcomes and better psychological functioning.
Passive coping involves processes of psychological and emotional acceptance. When a person you love dies, you may run yourself ragged trying to shake or diminish the feelings of loss and sadness. But eventually, you have to accept the reality of the situation. Accepting reality when you cannot change it is a good example of passive coping. Forgiveness is another one.
Don’t Be Afraid to Change
Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the martial art aikido, wrote a book called The Art of Peace. His secret to living a peaceful life was the core principle of Judo: Go with the flow! When you are rigid and inflexible, you are more likely to experience resistance and strain yourself in trying to maintain your posture. When you are flexible and willing to change a behavior that is not working, you are more adaptable and better adjusted. It takes courage to change your ways, but it is vital for health and well-being.