What do we really mean when we speak about “mental health?” Do we mean that we never experience unpleasant emotions? Not to me. To me, a mental health professional for many decades, never experiencing unpleasant emotions could be seen as unhealthy, because there is loss, challenging work and relationships, upsetting world conditions – and to not feel those emotions would actually be unhealthy.
So, maybe “mental health” is being able to take our experiences – those we desired and those we never wanted to happen – and find a way to gain something/learn something from all of them? That sounds like having a decent shot at becoming mentally healthy.
I saw early in my career that people who cared for their troubled loved ones and friends often told them: “You should get some help.” Meaning: go find a good shrink. And, in my experience, no one really wants to hear that advice as it is a code word for “You should change.”
I began to advise folks who wished to make a referral to me to suggest the following: “I think that if you got some wise, unbiased counsel, you would be happier.” And, yes, approaching people that way, many more people were finding their way towards “mental health.”
To expand the point, who do you know who doesn’t wish to be happier? It’s a winning “argument” to look at mental health as living a happier life. As someone who studied with the Happiness Scientists, as I like to call my pals, over 20 years ago, the science of happiness stresses three activities that lead to more happiness: gratitude, forgiveness and relishing the moments of joy. I invite you to more consciously engage in these practices and notice if you aren’t actually feeling happier.
I like to make things simple and, for me, greater happiness comes down to a “formula” that includes noticing and engaging in our options in life. So, if you can, discover the people, places and things you enjoy, then do more of them. Then, discover the people, places and things you don’t enjoy, and do less of them; and, if you can, find someone who will do the “required things” you don’t enjoy – so they get done.
So, there’s happiness and then there’s having things you find meaningful! The Japanese have an expression I love to share: ikigami – described as a reason to get up in the morning.
No one can tell you what is meaningful for you. Sometimes, helping an older person reach an item high up in the grocery store can bring a moment of meaning you two share without even saying a word. Volunteering, especially when you’re not feeling great about your life, can bring an untold sense of meaning. Your work, your family, your garden can all be sources of meaning, if you say so, and if let them have meaning for you.
I don’t know who deemed this World Mental Health Day, but I invite you to make it World Mental Health Year and each day you find more happiness and more meaning.