Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Perils of Mental Health

Most people agree that we were not prepared for 9/11 because no one had imagined that it could happen. You cannot prepare for something you cannot imagine.

Perhaps we do not prepare for these "black swans" because it is not the most efficient use of our mental resources. If we spent all our time trying to imagine the worst, we would never get anything done.

But no one ever suggested that we spend our working time thinking up future "black swans."

The task can be accomplished by a few, sufficiently paranoid individuals. Note the accent on "paranoid." How many of us, given the choice, would rather be wrong and mentally healthy than right and paranoid?

We are all proud of our mental health. We have worked long and hard to achieve it. We are not going to give up this new status symbol for the dubious achievement of predicting a catastrophe.

Mental health involves a positive attitude, a glass-half-full state of mind. Along that road true happiness lies. When people are mentally healthy, they do not spend their time forecasting calamity. They dismiss end-of-the-world scenarios as paranoid, the stuff of psychiatric wards.

To remain a member in good standing of the therapy culture you need to express appropriate emotions appropriately. You should not admit to thoughts that involve scenarios of great destruction and calamity. If you do, you will immediately be accused of having unresolved issues. Don't we all agree that emotional extremes are symptomatic?

As for the current financial crisis, we did indeed have soothsayers in our midst who predicted it. You know the names: Nassim Taleb, James Grant, and Nouriel Roubini.

Of course, very few people actually respected their views. They were more often discredited as cranks: bizarre, weird, strange, and melancholic.

When we label a negative forecast as a function of a melancholic disposition, we are ignoring the reality that it reflects.

Don't we all believe that emotional excess is a pathological symptom that must be suppressed by medication or talk therapy? Our culture has told us that extreme anxiety and deep despair cannot possibly reflect real events in the real world. An overwhelming emotion must express unresolved past traumas or defective brain chemistry.

Most psychiatrists work hard to distinguish between emotions based in reality and emotions based in fantasy. Clearly, there are emotional states that have biochemical origins.

Nonetheless, it is much easier to write a prescription than to formulate and execute a plan of action that will overcome a real external threat.

Sometimes it is normal to be very afraid or very depressed. Often these emotions are telling us something about the state of the world and our place in it. The real issues are: first, how we can recognize what the emotions are trying to tell us; and second, what we can do to rectify the situation.

If we choose the right course of action, we will often improve our state of mind too.

And think about this: when you are told that a person with a good attitude should see the glass as half-full, not half-empty, keep in mind that in both cases, you will still have something to drink.

If we change the metaphor just a bit and ask whether you see the swimming pool as half-full or half-empty... either way you would do best not to jump in.

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