Common Sense Route to Mental Health
By Harry Levinson
SIGMUND FREUD said that in order to have mental health a person had to be able to love and to work. Well, what goes into being able to love and to work? To answer this question we have to understand what motivates man, particularly his feelings. For man’s behavior is guided more by his feelings than by his rational thinking. Man’s feelings come from the interaction of four major forces: 1. Love-and-Hate. One constructive and the other destructives, a pair of drives form the basis for the feelings of love and hate. When the energies of both are combined and directed into solving problems, man is using them in his own interest and in behalf of others around him-in supporting his family, pursuing his career, attacking social problems building a business. The aggressive energy is tempered and guided by the constructive energy, when, however, these energies are diverted from ideally useful channels, a person makes less efficient use of them and to that extent is less healthy mentally.
For example, a man may over-control his feelings of aggression and fume internally with anger of hate. This produces tensions which literally wear away his body organs and result in a physical ailment called psychosomatic illness. Or a man may instead of directing his anger to problem-solving, transfer it to his wife, children, subordinates, store clerks, waiters and other people who cannot defend themselves against him. This is the mechanism that lies behind scapegoating, racial prejudice, exploiting others. Or a man may turn his anger on himself, in which case we see men who are their own worst enemies who have painful accidents, or repeatedly get themselves into trouble, or, in extreme instances, commit suicide.
The same kind of thing can happen with feelings of love. Some people, tragically, can love only themselves, and find it extremely difficult to have affectionate two-way relationships with others. Still others are so narrowly confined to themselves that they spend inordinate amounts of time treating themselves and talking about their illnesses. These ways of mishandling love, of course, drive other people away.
2. Conscience. We are not born with a conscience; we acquire it. It is made up of values we are taught, such as religious values, moral precepts and proper behavior.
Each of us, too, has an ego ideal, which is part of the conscience-a vision of ourselves as the persons we could be if only we could achieve those aspirations our parents and other respected figures hold out for us. Our aspirations usually far exceed our achievements; so we are rarely satisfied with ourselves.
Finally, each of us has an internal police-judge which calls us to account if we have violated our values or are not working toward achieving our ego ideal. This police-judging induces feelings of guilt. Inasmuch as the conscience must be strong if we are to conduct ourselves reasonably without constant control by somebody else, we all have a goodly share of guilt feelings which make us feel unworthy.
3. The need to master. Everyone wants to have the feeling that he is in charge of himself and that as time goes by, he more and more in charge of the forces that affect him. If a man feels he cannot do anything about these forces he stops trying and becomes apathetic.
This is what happens to people when they are unemployed for long periods, or spend their whole lives on relief. They become dependent on someone else and being dependent, feel childlike. Their consciences then make them feel even more worthless, and they redirect their drives to themselves, being at once angry and preoccupied with themselves. This is what we see as apathy; apparently these people just do not care. Or sometimes they get angry at the world and strike back by committing a crime. Any situation in which people are discriminated against, manipulated or demeaned produces the feeling of being a target. It is a major social problem that so many people feel this way.
To be master of himself and the forces that affect him a man must continue to grow psychologically. He must have the feeling that he is becoming wiser as he grows older, that he is discovering new and interesting things about the world, that he has a more adequate perspective on what goes on in life and that he enjoys close, affectionate relationships with friends. In a word, to grow is to feel ever richer.
Man has many ways of trying to increase his mastery. For some, religion provides an important avenue; for others, science and reason; for still others, expertness in their work or profession; and, for many, the acquisition of money. Most people evolve some combination of these means of achieving mastery. Yet there are some who are afraid of growing up and who forever remain dependent and childlike.
4. Environment. The three internal forces-love-and-hate, conscience and the need to master-interact with the things that go on outside the person, in his environment. A person may or may not be able to master some aspect of his environment, depending on how his parents and schools teach him to cope with problems, what skills he has opportunities to develop, and what freedom he has to act on his own.
The most influential elements of the environment are other people. We may love them, hate them, laugh at them, sympathize with them. They may love us, become angry with us, boost our self-esteem, deflate our aspirations, attack us, nurse us, amuse us, enrage us. Whatever they do, they stimulate our own feelings of love and hate, increase or decrease our feelings of adequacy and support or thwart our wish to master.
Certain non-human forces have some of the same effects: a depression, which may cause a man to lose his job; an accident, which may make it difficult to pursue his career; the loss of a loved one in a tornado or in war a fortunate break in the stock market, which eases financial pressures.
Man keeps trying to maintain his equilibrium by balancing all of these forces all of the time. Let us remember that it’s easier to stand erect on ice skates or to remain erect on a bicycle when one is moving, acting, doing-and that the same is true for maintaining psychological equilibrium. This is what mental health really is. When we say that a man is mentally healthy, we mean that he is doing a good job of maintaining an equilibrium among the four forces that give rise to his feelings about himself and others.
HOW DOESone act to maintain mental health? There are as many prescriptions as there are people. Every prescription is based on a conception of mental health, either tacit or explicit. The conception I lie best was derived from a study made by Drs. Charles Solley and Kenneth Munden at the Menninger Foundation. These men asked each of 14 senior members of the Foundation clinical staff to describe people he considered to be mentally healthy. They then analyzed the 41 descriptions they were given and concluded that mentally healthy people behave consistently in five important ways.
* They have a wide variety of sources of gratification. This does not mean that they chase frenetically from one activity to another, but that they find pleasure in many different ways and from many things. If for any reason, they lose some of their sources of gratification, they have others to turn to For example, a person who loses a good friend by death may sorrow, but if he has other good friends, he draws psychological sustenance from them and recovers. But if a man loses his only good friend, he has little else to fall back on and continues to grieve in his loneliness. A person has the same problem if his only interest is his job, or his immediate family, or a single hobby.
* They are flexible under stress.
This means simply that they can roll with the punches. When faced with problems, they can see alternative solutions. Flexibility under stress is closely related to having a wide variety of sources of gratification. With more supports to fall back on, a person is less threatened by situations that produce fear and anxiety. With a wider, fuller range of experiences and relationships, he can come at his problems from varying perspectives.
* They recognize and accept their limitations and their assets.
Put another way, they have a reasonably accurate picture of themselves and they like what they see. This does not mean that they are complacent about themselves, but they know they cannot be anyone else, and that is all right with them.
* They treat other people as individuals.
This is a subtle phenomenon and an important one. People who are preoccupied with themselves pay only superficial attention to others. They are so tied up in themselves that they cannot observe the subtleties in another person’s feelings, nor can they really listen. Mentally healthy people really care about what other people feel.
* They are active and productive.
Mentally healthy people use their resources in their own behalf and in behalf of others. They do what they do because they like to do it and enjoy using their skills. They do not feel driven to produce to prove themselves. They are in charge of their activities: the activities are not in charge of them. When they are chosen for leadership of one sort or another, it is because they have the skills to lead in a given situation, not because they have to exercise power over others. They seek achievement for what they can do, not for what they can be; for when one tries to be something or someone, he is never satisfied with himself even if he achieves the desired goal.
ONE OF the best examples of a person in whom the prime characteristics of mental health were evident is Albert Einstein. Though he was a shy and gentle man, sometimes even remote from others, he had close ties to a number of people, to his work, his music, the sea and other phenomena of nature.
“He was,” said his friend Dr. Thomas Lee Bucky, “the only person I knew who had come to terms with himself and the world around him. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted only this: to understand within his limits as a human being the nature of the universe and the logic and simplicity of it’s functioning. He knew there were answers beyond his reach. But this did not frustrate him. He was content to go as far as he could.”
Einstein turned down the presidency of Israel because he knew he did not fit the job. He could teach a lad to yo-yo, another to sail a boat, and express his compassion for others in simple, eloquent communications. Medals, honors, fame-these meant nothing to him. Einstein never tried to be; he was content to do, and to let whatever he could do speak for itself.
How does one obtain this condition called mental health? As a matter of fact, you cannot get it. Mental health is had in the working-toward, in the process of pursuit.
Life is short. It is to be lived. He who has good mental health lives it to the fullest, and he who lives it enjoyably has good mental health.