It's the time of year when I like to start making plans for a summer trip someplace interesting. This summer, we are tracing our family history back to Denmark, which is providing many happy hours of researching castles and historical places to see there. Planning this trip reminds me how very important it is for each of us to have something in the planning that we are looking forward to. We get old inside when we don't have something to look ahead to with excitement. It can be months or even a year or two away, but we need positive goals to target so we don't get stale and bored with routine.
Positive psychology studies mental health and wellness, rather than mental illness or pathology. Martin Seligman Ph.D. is one of the founding fathers of this area of study. Seligman wrote Authentic Happiness, and Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. The diagnostic manual therapists use to code counseling visits for insurance purposes (DSM) doesn't include wellness goals and signs of mental health and growth. Therapists (and each of us) should think about these positive growth areas as goals to work towards in our lives, rather than just eliminating symptoms. Seligman believes we need to focus less on what can go wrong in psychology, and more on what can go right, including the development of the character strengths of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.
If one sign of wellness is having something to look forward to, here are some other indicators of strong mental health and emotional maturity:
1. Flexibility---Being able to adapt to the changes life brings by being flexible and resilient is a strong positive. Rigidity in the face of disappointment or loss is not useful or adaptive. In each individual's life, there will be things that happen that you did not want or expect. How you learn to be flexible and begin again is everything. As people age, this willingness to adapt becomes even more necessary and a hallmark for healthy living.
2. Gratefulness/Joy---Being appreciative for the people and things in your life, and the little joys in your daily path is a definite sign of health. Many mentally healthy people make a practice of practicing gratefulness each morning for a few minutes, whether spoken or written.
3. Assertiveness---Being able to ask for what you want, positively, and without guilt.
4. Ability to listen---Learning to really listen, deeply, and from the heart, changes the depth of how understood others feel by you. Most people stop talking at times, but aren't really listening and reflecting back actively what they are hearing and how things make you feel.
5. Directness---Being able to speak directly to anyone and let them know what you feel, or make a request. This means not being passive aggressive, holding unexpressed feelings inside, and creating resentment. Directness doesn't mean rudeness. It's respectful of both you and the other person. It's being brave enough to go direct, rather than going to a third party and complaining.
6. Setting boundaries---Being able to say "no" if you don't feel a "yes" inside you. Being able to set boundaries and hold them means your yes really means something, as it's not out of guilt or obligation.
7. Taking personal responsibility---The willingness to apologize, make repairs and amends in relationships, and offering forgiveness show self-awareness and a level of emotional maturity.
8. Understanding your own emotions and being aware of the feelings of others----This is known as emotional intelligence. Being aware of your own emotions lets you learn to self-soothe in healthy ways when you are stressed or down. Being aware of the emotional state of others you care about allows you to become emotionally attuned and supportive in your close relationships.
9. No buffering---Letting negative feelings be expressed appropriately, but not buffering with food, alcohol, drugs, or the overuse of electronics. Living without numbing your feelings allows you to be fully alive, and know that you can get through negative feelings without addictive behaviors. About 50% of our feelings will be positive and 50% may be negative, so learning how to accept and process negative emotion without buffering is of critical importance.
10. Going outside----Spending some time outside in nature centers us, puts things in perspective and helps ground us. Who doesn't feel less stressed with a walk by the ocean or a hike in the hills?
11. Connecting to others---Friends and close relationships are good medicine. Many people are too isolated and that loneliness prevents maximum mental health. Actively seeking out time with others you enjoy in your family or neighborhood is a positive mental health strategy. The healthiest people have friends of various ages, and an openness to adding new potential friends all their lives. If you live a long life, you will need friends who are younger, too.
12. Honesty--Speaking your truth at all times. This will make others trust you.
13. Expressiveness---It's a sign of mental health if you actively let people know when you love and care about them and express it will verbal expression and non-verbal warmth (hugs, affection with loved ones).
14. Ability to play or be serious (as the situation warrants).
15. Not taking things personally. Many difficulties that happen in life and in relationships aren't personal.
16. Getting enough sleep, and having standard sleep hours. Develop a nightly ritual of how you wind down the last hour of the day to ease into sleep. Keep the time you awake consistent. Good sleep hygiene helps protect you from anxiety, depression and mood swings .I often work on sleep patterns with teens and 20-somethings in counseling.
17. Managing food well, to maximize health and emotional and physical wellness. Plan regular meals, and limit sugar and caffeine which impact mood and trigger mood swings.
18. Being active physically--to manage stress, clear your mind and keep your body moving.
19. Being of service to others and creating community.
20. Handling money responsibly--- not learning to do this creates worry, stress and anxiety. Learning to live within your budget and save for the future enhances mental wellness.
To create well-being, we need meaning, contribution, relationships, connection, achievement and engagement. Positive psychology helps us look not just at problems, but at building a road map for a happier, more meaningful life. Focusing on developing positive mental health practices is a mindful approach to creating the life you want. Having mental wellness goals helps you to keep having a growing edge in your life, which keeps you vital and inspired. What are you looking forward to?