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Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D.

Nancy S. Buck Ph.D.

Mental Health and Happiness

Start today: Practice a connecting habit and eliminate a disconnecting habit.

I am on a mission. Generated by the horrific massacre in Newtown last December, when 20 students and six educators were killed, our nation has been involved in a renewed debate regarding gun control.

There has also been increased interest, talk, and some funding directed to improving mental health services in this country. No matter what your belief about guns and gun control, surely you can support and work to improve your own mental health and the mental health and happiness of your family. However, this is probably harder to do than you imagine.

What is mental health? How can you work to improve and maintain your mental health if you don’t even know what that means?

Curiously, in this country, most people older than 6 years can tell you how to improve their physical health and shape. We have done a remarkable job of educating the public and embracing the idea of getting into good physical shape, understanding that this improves physical health and stamina. In fact, you can hardly walk a city block without spying more than one health club, fitness facility, or yoga salon.

We have made similar remarkable progress in moving good oral health and dental hygiene as a commonly understood public health issue. With this shift and educational reform, most Americans enjoy good dental health. The latest focus is the level of whiteness and brightness of your teeth, rather than concerns to prevent cavities only.

But when it comes to mental health, we can’t even define it, let alone take steps to develop or improve it. I did some research to see if some well-known resources might provide some answers and be able to help. Investigating the term "mental health" on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website resulted in the following information about mental illnesses: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and more. There was nothing defining or describing mental health.

Next, I searched in several dictionaries under the word "health" and found: the condition of being sound in body, mind, or soul. But there were no listings for mental health. Wikipedia describes mental health as a level of psychological well-being or an absence of a mental disorder. I also consulted some personal and professional friends and acquaintances, getting mostly vague answers with an occasional explanation of mental health as the absence of mental illness.

Surely good mental health and happiness are more than the absence of mental illness, just as good physical health is more than the absence of illness, and good dental health is more than the absence of cavities.

It’s difficult to take personal responsibility for developing and maintaining good mental health and happiness for yourself and your family if you don’t even know what it is. That’s where I can help.

How? I suggest you follow these three simple steps.

Everyone from age 6-years-old and older needs to know:

1. What good emotional and mental health is.

2. What you must do to get into good mental and emotional health.

3. What you must do to maintain your good emotional and mental health.

First, let me give you a working definition of good mental and emotional health. It comes from psychiatrist William Glasser, my mentor, teacher, and the founder of choice theory psychology. (Peaceful Parenting is the application of choice theory psychology to parenting.)

You are mentally healthy if you enjoy being with most of the people you know, especially with the important people in your life, such as family and friends. Generally, you are happy and are more than willing to help an unhappy family member, friend, or colleague to feel better. You lead a mostly tension-free life, laugh a lot, and rarely suffer from the aches and pains that so many people accept as an unavoidable part of living.

You enjoy life and have no trouble accepting that other people are different from you. The last thing that comes to mind is to criticize or try to change anyone. You are creative in what you attempt and may enjoy more of your potential than you ever thought possible. Finally, even in difficult situations when you are unhappy—no one can be happy all the time—you’ll know why you are unhappy and attempt to do something about it. You may even be physically handicapped, as was Christopher Reeve, and still fit the criteria above.

Take a minute and reread that definition. Really let it sink in and understand this statement. See if you can create a picture in your mind.

Do you see yourself laughing, smiling, hugging, and enjoying the company of those you love and like? Can you see yourself offering help, comfort, and support to those you live and work with? Do you accept that others are different from you and let them be different without trying to change them? During those times when you are faced with difficulty, do you know what to do about your life situation that doesn’t include changing another person? In order to move in the mental health direction described above, it helps to start with an idea, a picture, an image, or images where you can see and imagine this.

Next, here is what you need to do to get into good mental and emotional health. Every day, make sure you meet your needs for safety, love, power, fun, and freedom. Be sure you meet these needs in respectful and responsible ways. Be sure that your relationships are not based on you attempting to control the other person. Instead, work toward managing your differences with other people in a loving, respectful, and mutually satisfying way. This includes the relationships you have with your children.

I understand that this last suggestion is challenging. After all, you want to help your children grow into becoming the best adults and people possible. So often, parents feel the urge to help, correct, and guide your children for the children’s own good. Too often, this becomes an attempt to control and manipulate your children.

The goal of Peaceful Parenting is to help you learn how to influence and parent your children. You want to continue to develop and maintain a loving, connected relationship with your children throughout your lifetime. And you want to help your children grow into independent, responsible adults who make a contribution to the world while maintaining a loving relationship with you. The temptation to control your children along the way is great. The result of following those instincts is potentially damaging your child’s and your own good emotional and mental health.

Finally, you can maintain good mental health and happiness by continuing to meet your basic needs for safety, love, power, fun, and freedom responsibly and respectfully every day. Teach your children and the rest of your family to do the same. Practice connecting habits with all the people in your life:

  • Caring
  • Listening
  • Supporting
  • Encouraging
  • Respecting
  • Befriending
  • Trusting
  • Accepting

Avoiding disconnecting habits:

  • Nagging
  • Withdrawing
  • Blaming
  • Punishing
  • Complaining
  • Rewarding
  • Criticizing
  • Threatening

Each one of us can work to improve good emotional and mental health right now! After all, we as a nation worked to change the definition of good physical health and good oral health by addressing these issues as public health problems to be solved. The same is possible for good emotional and mental health. Just as parents are the primary teachers and coaches to inspire and steer their children toward being in good physical shape and maintaining good dental and oral health, the same can happen for good mental and emotional health.

Start practicing one of the connecting habits today. Eliminate one of the disconnecting habits today. Do this for a week, and see if you have achieved success. Notice what this has done for the important relationships in your life and for your own mental health and happiness. Next week, choose another pair of connecting habits to practice and disconnecting habits to eliminate.

Finally, post the connecting and disconnecting habits on your refrigerator or in a prominent place in your home to remind you and every member of your family the connecting habits to practice and the disconnecting habits to avoid. After all, developing and maintaining good emotional and mental health begins at home with yourself and your family.


About the Author

Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D.

Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D. tackles the tough topics facing families today. She is a developmental and author of Peaceful Parenting and Why Do Kids Act That Way?