What is Mental Health?

The word “health” means the condition of an organism when it is functioning properly and exists in a state of well-being or vitality. Interestingly enough, when our bodies are healthy, we are not especially aware of their activity. For example, if our stomach is behaving well, we are usually not cognizant of its presence.

By extension, then, we could consider mental health to prevail when one’s mental capabilities are operating pragmatically, effectively and in accord with expectations such that one is untroubled by the thoughts that are passing through consciousness and by the associated experiences in our lives. A sense of peacefulness, contentment or equanimity would characterize such a state of being. Of course, such tranquility is only genuine when it is cognizant of, yet not deterred by, the troubles of the world.

It is the relative rarity of such serene moments and the greater frequency of periods of disturbed awareness and self-consciousness that impels many of us to seek “mental health” through psychotherapeutic clarification and/or spiritual illumination. We aspire to utilize the understanding and guidance of the mental health practitioner or spiritual teacher to attain a better way of thinking, more efficient methods for dealing with those issues or relationships that trouble us, and ultimately an altered mode of being that will produce less suffering and greater happiness.

Such an expectation rests, in large part, on the presumed wisdom and skill of the psychotherapist or spiritual teacher that we choose to see and the degree of rapport that is established between us. Often we are disappointed to find that, although we are helped with our most exigent problems, we still fail to attain sufficient transforming understanding to be acceptably happy and peaceful about our lives.

We cannot attribute this shortcoming to our therapist or guide, for he or she is only human, and cannot always discern what we need for complete healing to occur. And, of course, we cannot but acknowledge that even when we are provided with penetratingly accurate insights into our troublesome way of being in the world and presented with healthier alternatives, we are often the stumbling blocks because we are not motivated to modify our outlook.

But perhaps a not insignificant part of the problem is that neither our teachers nor we have a clear enough idea of what attitudes contribute to and constitute mental health and well-being. Some researchers have sought a way to address this issue by studying the character and consciousness of those individuals who seem to be “enlightened” or “self-actualized” or more consistently happy and peaceful than most of us. Their reports tend to focus on what are called “peak experiences” as being the most revelatory indications of consciousness tuned in to a higher understanding of reality. If, however, these experiences are not ultimately transformative, but merely transiently uplifting, what guiding value do they have?

A simpler, more direct way of defining mental health is as an attitude of open-mindedness combined with an underlying awareness of good. For it is only when consciousness is so imbued that peace, that primary indicator of well-being, can reign in our souls. Clearly, those advanced individuals who have manifested great wisdom and love were oriented toward affirming life and utterly lacking in condemnation of others. Who among us is not inspired when we are blessed to meet an individual whose presence manifests such a positive, yet non-judgmental outlook toward us and life in general? Who would deny that such a world view is mentally healthy?

An open minded perspective refers to the realization that we cannot know what is best in most circumstances. It obtains from becoming aware of and acknowledging our own limited understanding, and releases us from judging others, situations, and even our own status in a personal way. Humility, despite its unpopularity, liberates. The Zen Buddhist recommendation, “above all, cherish no opinions,” speaks to the same issue --- the error of relying on the myopic vision of the personal mind. It also helps to improve our sense of humor, a quality of mind consistently associated with health.

As for looking for the good in life, it might seem that the ostensible abundance of evil around us proves that anyone who sees mainly goodness is dwelling in a fool’s paradise, and is being blinded by a short-sighted disregard for the obvious. It would be naive to argue that evil is to be ignored, or that wise souls lack awareness of the dark side of human nature. It is rather the case that such beneficial beings are most interested in paying attention to the good. The consequence of focusing on the good in each individual and in life in general, rather than looking for and exploiting people’s weaknesses (the plight of the competitive), is to become immersed in and committed to the loving mode of being. It is eminently health-promoting, life-enhancing, and joy-inducing.

The observation that attention directed toward seeking goodness produces a mentally healthy individual derives, in part, from the famous statement that “the thinker and the thought are one.” This means that our life experiences are determined by the thoughts to which we tend to attach ourselves. As Matthew 13:12 points out, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

The advanced individual is one who chooses to be grateful for the good in her or his life, while refraining from insisting on how life is to unfold. Or, as one sage put it, “blessed are the should-less, for their lives shall be fuss-less.” The willingness to relinquish “should thinking” is a substantial encouragement to a more tranquil, freer, and healthier consciousness.

Whereas many spiritual traditions characterize behavior as determining righteousness and the good life, and various psychotherapeutic schools seek to examine those habitual thoughts that appear to control our lives, mental health seems to require attention rather to the cherished values that underlie our thoughts, actions and experiences. By considering the healthiness of the values with which we identify ourselves, we confront those assumptions most responsible for the state of our well-being. Reluctance to do so can keep us from uncovering the ultimate source of our lack of ease in life.

It is interesting to note that, while physical health may often occur without any special attention being paid to it, (and, indeed, it may even be more prevalent when thoughts about the body are not given priority) mental health seems to require steadfast concentration. Such attentiveness and conscious discipline is needed so that thoughts are scrutinized to assure that open-mindedness and receptivity to inspired ideas prevail in consciousness, and that there is a persistent orientation toward looking for blessings in life. For, ultimately, it is understanding that transforms us. Together these two habits of thought may bring about a resilient spirit less vulnerable to, or troubled by, the vicissitudes of daily existence, one that could be characterized as being “mentally healthy.”