3 Essential Skill Sets for Your Best Mental Health
Anyone can improve their mental well-being by practicing these skills.
Posted Oct 09, 2019
What Is “Mental Health”?
Would you like to improve your mental health? I don’t think many people would answer “no” to that question. There’s always something to work on, whether coping better with frustration, reducing needless anxiety, or, on a happier note, learning to savor the positive events in life.
But what is “mental health” exactly? Most mental health professionals agree that “mental health” is more than just the absence of mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, stresses that health, including mental health, " ... is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
There are numerous helpful definitions of mental health (I’ll share a few below), but my favorite is this one:
A mentally healthy person is someone who can learn from the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.
I heard this definition of mental health from a philosophy professor that I worked with over 25 years ago. Her definition is certainly memorable—at least, in all these years, I’ve never forgotten it.
Below I’ve listed skills that might help you “learn from the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.” As you look over the list, think about areas you already excel in. Then choose one skill to work on that would bring you more confidence, peace of mind, or relationship harmony.
Skill Set 1: “Learn from the Past”
To “learn from the past,” you might need self-reflection skills, such as the following:
- Self-Compassion: Self-compassion helps you face setbacks and disappointments without getting discouraged or self-critical. In addition, self-compassion allows you to forgive your Past Self for mistakes or imperfection.
Growth Mindset: A "growth mindset" gives you the resilience to learn from both failures and successes.
- Relationship Intelligence: With a little analysis, you can figure out what makes a relationship satisfying for you and what you can do to build better relationships.
- Gratitude: Focusing on what you are grateful for can lift your spirits, among multiple other benefits.
To cultivate these self-reflection skills, you need an action plan. General strategies might include: seeing a therapist, taking a class, reading a book on the topic, or engaging in a regular practice, such as the “three good things” or “small successes” exercise.
Skill Set 2: “Live in the Present”
To “live in the present” means two things: (1) the ability to enjoy the present moment, and (2) the ability to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, whether "good" or "bad." This aspect of mental health requires mindfulness skills above all.
Such skills might include:
- Relaxation: Learning to relax and savor the present moment makes life worth living.
- The "Catch It, Challenge It, Change It" Technique: Catching unhelpful thoughts, challenging them, and deliberately changing those thoughts when they reappear is an essential skill from the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tradition.
- Noticing Your Thoughts Without Taking Them Seriously: Deciding not to believe hurtful, self-critical, and unrealistic random thoughts brings great mental relief.
- Assertiveness: Respecting the needs and rights of others while respecting your own needs and rights will help you express your ideas, say no, and set boundaries.
- Paying Attention to Your Own Mental States: Recognizing emotions, thoughts, and physical states, such as fatigue, will clue you as to when you need to HALT—never letting yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
- Paying Attention to Your Environment: Scanning your surroundings for dangers, opportunities, friends, and beauty helps you survive as well as thrive.
Specific strategies to cultivate mindfulness skills might include assertiveness training classes, couples therapy, taking regular breaks, healthy self-care, meditation, exercise, and periodic pauses to notice the world around you.
Skill Set 3: “Plan for the Future”
“Plan for the future” would include planning skills to help you meet the needs of your Future Self, such as:
- Identifying Values: Knowing your most cherished values and acting on them is the foundation of your confidence, sense of purpose, and willpower.
- Goal-Setting: Setting personal goals that jive with your values and sense of purpose can provide a guide to your actions and help you set priorities.
- Meaningful Work: Guided by values and goals, you can plan a satisfying career path.
- Self-Control: Choosing to bring your highest values and goals to mind before making a decision will activate your willpower.
- Acceptance: Recognizing the realities of aging and death and reaching a level of acceptance of those realities will help you deal with necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, issues, such as financial planning and "death cleaning."
- Legacy: Knowing your values can help you decide how to contribute to your community or leave a meaningful legacy.
Specific strategies to accomplish these goals might include: working with a health coach, getting legal advice, learning to set SMART (specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, time-based) goals, and periodically reviewing decisions you’ve made to see what has and hasn’t worked for you.
Other Useful Definitions
The above definition of “mental health” is not perfect. For one thing, it does not place enough emphasis on the role of ethical behavior in mental health. Also, “relationship health” is so important for mental health, happiness, and longevity that it perhaps deserves a category all its own.
Martin Seligman, often called the father of positive psychology, does emphasize relationships in his theory of mental health, or "flourishing." In his view, mental well-being rests on a foundation of "PERMA": Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. (For more on his theory of well-being, click here.)
The World Health Organization offers a definition that emphasizes well-being and human potential:
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
Finally, to some researchers, mental health is as simple as "feeling good about yourself and your life and being good at something."
In a Nutshell: How Can You Have a Healthier Mind?
How can you have a healthier mind? Recognize that: 1) The person most responsible for your mental health is you; 2) Decide on an area of life that needs work; and 3) Do something about it. All in all, know that "mental health" is not just a state of mind; it's a set of skills that anyone can learn.
(c) Meg Selig, 2019.