Friday, May 14, 2010

As good as it gets?

If I told you that you were a big, fat zero, would you say "Thank you" and squeal with delight or would you get in a huff and be insulted? If I were to ask you to rate yourself on a scale from negative ten to positive ten, would you put yourself happily at zero and be proud and content? I would think not.

If we score mental health on a scale from negative values representing mental illness to positive values with zero representing the threshold of the absence of clinical mental illness, "normal" is a zero. In the western world, the underlying assumption is that "normal," free from mental illness, is a healthy mind and is as good as it gets. Most of the mental health information and programs in our society focus on getting people to the zero line - not above it.

This "normal" mind still experiences many forms of mental distress such as anxiety, frustration, boredom, restlessness, unhappiness, and resentment. This is considered just part of life and how things are. As long as these are not chronic or disabling, that person gets a passing grade. Anything above "normal" is generally reserved for monks or saints, and it not thought of as something that can be cultivated and learned and certainly not expected.

Our society and our science focuses on the mental states below zero. In the last several decades, there have been thousands of studies on mental illness and a pitiful few on happiness, contentment, joy and compassion. We know almost nothing about the qualities that make life worth living and the accompanying brain states.

Many philosophies of today teach that which is focused on materializes. Paying attention to something feeds it and gives it energy to perpetuate. So, be careful what you focus on in your own life! Hence, worrying only brings what you are worrying about into your reality. Get it? As a society, focusing on the downside of mental health only brings about more of the same.

As individuals, we need to strive to rise above "normal." Aim higher than this baseline which is somewhere above depression but far below what is possible. Humanity does not have to be satisfied with this this minimal level of mental and emotional health.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically, permanently change based on repetitive experiences, provides everyone with the ability to improve and change their own mental and emotional functioning. As individuals and as a population, it is entirely possible to attain higher levels of attention, awareness, happiness, peace, empathy, compassion, patience, altruism, joy, contentment, etc. I could go on and on. It is possible.

We are coming into a brain fitness era where it will become standard for a person to exercise their brain regularly just like they do their body. Exercise for the brain includes such things as regular meditation, mindfulness practices, visualizations, affirmations, focused attention, and anything stimulating like crossword puzzles, sudoku, learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument, even visiting a museum or traveling somewhere new...anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and gets the brain learning and making new connections.

Science is confirming the reality that we can change our brains by studying "above zero" people such as Buddhist monks whose mental baseline is at levels most people only achieve briefly, if ever. What is being learned from them is the key to everyone raising their set point with mental training and hints at what is possible.

I know in my own life, I have gone from somewhere in the negatives to somewhere above zero. Let me tell you, I sure like the view much better on the other side.


  1. Hi Debbie,
    Exactly! You're speaking my language!
    I firmly believe this and have lived it. Hey, congrats for being, "on the other side." Isn't the view fantastic?

    Your post is also a good reminder for me -- while I spend large amounts of time meditating, exercising, and in mindful practice, I could really use more time getting out of my comfort zone, too. In fact, I've always wanted to learn Spanish (I know Russian, French, and some Czech) -- maybe it's time to get going. Yes?

    Thanks for this inspiring and motivating post, Debbie. Onward and upward.

  2. Bonjour Lori! Sounds like you are already well versed to me, but one more is sure to give your brain a workout and encourage it to make new connections. The view on this side is splendid. I just want other people to know they too can jump the fence! Come on in! The water is fine!