If we score mental health on a scale from negative values representing mental illness to positive values with zero being the absence of clinical mental illness, what is considered “normal” is a zero. In the western world, the underlying assumption is that normal, meaning free from mental illness, equates a healthy mind and is as good as it gets. Most mental health information and programs in our society focus on getting people to that zero line – not above it.
This “normal” mind can still experience many forms of mental distress such as anxiety, frustration, boredom, restlessness, unhappiness, and resentment, which is all just an expected part of life these days. It’s just the way things are in this chaotic world. Right? As long as these conditions of the mind aren’t chronic or disabling, the person experiencing them gets a passing grade for mental health. Anything above normal baseline is reserved for monks or saints and isn’t typically viewed as something that can be cultivated, learned, or part of normal.
Our society and science have focused on the mental states below zero and in the last several decades, and there have been thousands of studies on mental illness and a small number on happiness, contentment, joy, and compassion. As a result, little is known about the qualities that make life worth living and the accompanying brain states, but this is changing.
Many philosophies of today teach that which is focused on materializes or, in other words, paying attention to something feeds it and contributes the energy to perpetuate. Worrying about something only brings it into your reality. If this is true, as a society focusing on the downside of mental health only serves to bring about more of the same.
As individuals, we don’t have to and shouldn’t be satisfied with this baseline level of mental and emotional health when so much more is possible.
Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically, permanently change structure and function based on repetitive experiences, thoughts, and behavior, gives all of us the ability to improve their mental and emotional functioning. As individuals and as a population, it’s entirely possible to change our brains to attain higher levels of attention, awareness, happiness, peace, empathy, compassion, patience, altruism, joy, and contentment. A higher level of mental health is absolutely attainable.
We’re moving into a brain fitness era where it will most likely become standard for a person to exercise their brain regularly, just like they do their body. Exercise for the brain would include meditation, mindfulness, visualization, affirmations, focused attention exercises, computer brain training and experiences out of a person’s comfort zone which challenges their brain in new ways: learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument, taking dance lessons, visiting a museum or traveling, for instance.
Science is confirming that we can change our brains by studying “above zero” populations, such as Buddhist monks, whose mental baselines are at levels most people only achieve briefly, if ever. What’s being learned from them is key to everyone raising their mental set point and hints at what’s possible for all of us.
I know in my own life, my mental health has gone from somewhere in the negatives to above zero. Let me tell you, I like the view much better on this side.
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