Want Greater Mental Health? Plunge Forward Into The Unknown!

New research joins with observations from therapy to reveal a common theme.

Posted May 30, 2019

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience. There are two paths to take; one back towards the comforts and security of death, the other forward, to "nowhere." —Henry Miller 

The general public has become more aware and open about recognizing mental health issues that can affect anyone. This increased awareness is aided, no doubt, by well-known celebrities from the entertainment, sports and music industries who’ve spoken about their own struggles, and the benefit they’ve experienced from psychotherapy. It feels liberating when you're able to heal from trauma and dysfunction in your life. But that’s not the end of the story.  Rather, that gives you the foundation to discover what mental health really is, and what promotes it as your life continues onward.  That is, what lies “beyond healing?”

The answer may lie in a theme that's visible when you look at the connection between the benefits of therapy and some perspectives usually excluded from traditional mental health thinking.  The former is visible in what some people describe as they reflect on what they're aiming for in their lives ahead, as they absorb the healing benefits of their therapy. As they turn their attention to "now, what?" they often encounter perspectives and teachings similar to those of many philosophical and spiritual traditions. Interestingly, the implications of that connection for mental health -- beyond healing -- are supported by recent empirical studies, as I describe below.  

In essence, the theme is this: Mental health grows from creating and pursuing an ideal vision and path for yourself; one that you feel pulled towards as though by a magnet as you go forward in your life. That vision includes activating dormant dimensions of your personality; consciously growing and expanding them. It includes putting your energies in the service of something that reflects your interdependency and interconnection with the larger human community -- not just your own “needs” or selfish desires. We all have those; it’s part of being human. But pursuing them too much is a dead end for mental health. 

Recent research shows links between a sense of meaningful purpose, a positive vision and greater mental health; even longevity. For example, a study described in this summary from UC Berkeley found that creating a vision of your future enhances motivation towards pursuing it. It helps to make more prudent decisions along the way, and also increases kindness and generosity. And those are qualities associated with most philosophical and spiritual perspectives.

Another study, from Penn State, found that perseverance towards a vision of your life generates a sense of purposefulness and direction. It creates greater resilience in the face of setbacks or negative experiences. The findings were published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Moreover, research from the University of Pennsylvania, published in Health Psychology, found that people with a stronger vision of purpose and direction in their lives also tend to embrace healthy behavior patterns in other dimensions of their lives. 

In addition, other studies, such as one published in Motivation and Emotion, found that letting go of preoccupation with your own self; such as focusing on what others think about you–all ego preoccupations–can generate more positive expectations and behavior towards others. Those are dimensions of your personality, perhaps latent; and they grow as a consequence,

I think the upshot here is that a powerful vision of mental health is emerging, as you heal from trauma and manage it’s aftermath in your life. It reflects “growing” the facets of your personality and capacities–emotionally, creatively, and mentally–and connecting them to serve some form of engagement, of connection, with others. The healthy personality recognizes that personal wellbeing is interwoven with that of all others on this shared planet.

Mental health practitioners should be open to teachings from outside our traditional thinking, incorporate empirical evidence and learn from our patients' aims as they become healthier. That means expanding what we envision mental health to be, post-helping people successfully heal and resolve troubling conflicts and symptoms.  Doing so will better serve our patients’ quest for greater wellbeing, and at the same time show a professional responsibility to identify and promote healthier individual lives and a healthier society. They go hand-in-hand.

Below are a few ways you can consciously grow undeveloped dimensions of yourself.

  • Identify and list some qualities of yourself that you believe exist within you, but have remained underdeveloped or dormant, and that you now desire to strengthen and expand. Then,
  • For each one, envision what it would look like if you did embody that quality in your personality in daily life - in your relationships, at work, in your emotional attitudes.
  • Describe that more broadened, expanded picture of yourself in a paragraph or two.
  • Then, envision a tether is attached at one end to those qualities you want to evolve, above; the other end attached to yourself, below. Picture the tether pulling you steadily upwards towards those evolved qualities.

  • Reflect on what you need to do each day to strengthen that dimension or dimensions of yourself, as though you’re strengthening a new muscle.