Simply feeling good is not mental health. Yet when normal aspects of the human condition are over-pathologized, it’s easy to see how one could think that is the case. Afterall any level of anxiety and/or depression is increasingly considered a “mental disorder,” when they are often expected and appropriate symptoms of adjustment, setback, novelty, learning, resolving conflict, and other general life challenges. As a result, the line between basic human struggle and genuine human misery has been blurred.
To make matters worse, we live in a culture where there is endless promotion of the “fun life.” We only need a quick browse through our social media platforms to find supporting evidence of this quite obvious claim. We’ll find photos upon photos and videos upon videos of people seemingly living in a state of perpetual joy. This, combined with a constant doom and gloom perspective from the news media, can lead to a joy/misery, either/or paradigm of interpreting our experience. In my view, this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of human psychology.
It’s normal to look at such superficial representations of others on Instagram or Facebook and ask, “why don’t I feel like that all the time too?” The answer: because no one feels like that all the time. Now it may not always be fake joy, but it certainly is an incomplete model of mental health. In my studies and practice as a professional counselor, I have come to understand mental health more so in terms of how one functions, opposed to how one feels (disclaimer: not saying feelings don’t matter).
It is impossible to extract unpleasantness from the human condition, so attempts to consistently avoid or eliminate unpleasant feelings is to deny a basic element of our existence and ultimately set us up for failure. Therefore, it is imperative to realize, in reasonable amounts, unpleasantness and discomfort (which are too often mistaken for clinical depression and anxiety) are actually the building blocks of personal growth.
In fact, turning towards, not away from, struggle is an essential pillar of mental health and adaptive functioning. Frequently clients come in to see me for what they believe is a problem with how they feel. However, over the course of several sessions, the common finding is that it is not the feeling that it is the problem, but rather, it is a struggle that they are not yet equipped to turn towards and effectively manage. So the goal becomes to address that, while learning to see the “negative” feeling as a biproduct of a properly functioning internal alert system misinterpreted as pathology.
Let me be clear. Of course there are such things as chemical imbalances and mental disorders, but at the same time, we should be careful not to jump to those conclusions when assessing psychological symptoms. Because if we remain sloppy, we potentially reinforce the idea that one has attained mental health only when they are completely happy and comfortable. If that’s the case, the treatment model will always be to just take more pills, instead of also improving one’s functioning in the face of life’s challenges.