Although our worst days of the Covid pandemic are still ahead, the availability of effective vaccines has given us hope and enabled us to envision the possibility that eventually things will return to normal. As welcome as that would be, should we stop there? Consistent with the messaging from our incoming administration, this may be an opportunity to “build back better,” not only in relation to our economy but in relation to our personal lives as well.
In this vein, in considering how psychotherapy provides more than just relief from symptoms, I’ve been thinking lately about how “mental health” may be more than just the absence of “mental illness.” Just as mental illness can be conceptualized on a continuum of severity, perhaps mental health can similarly be described on a continuum. What does it mean to not only be free of symptoms, but to actually flourish? Is it possible to define what an “optimal life” consists of? Perhaps thinking about such things will not only be useful for our patients but may benefit us personally as well.
I think of flourishing as a state, in contrast to the totality of experiences that constitute a life (optimal or not) as a whole. In thinking about flourishing, which can be a state that lasts days, weeks, months or even years, I’d elaborate on Freud’s dictum of mental health involving the ability to love and work by also including play. So I address each of these three categories below. It’s important to note, however, that for particular people in their unique circumstances, thriving in all three contexts may not be possible and may not be necessary.
I also appreciate that it would be desirable to have definitions that are independent of socio-economic status or level of intellectual achievement. It seems possible to flourish if one is in a state of poverty if one has the right mindset, e.g. a Buddhist monk with no personal possessions can flourish with adequate food and shelter. It depends a lot on one’s value system and social context.
In general, the distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness is important here. Hedonic pleasure derives from sensory experiences and can be fleeting. These are pleasurable experiences of the self. Eudaimonic happiness, however, involves the gratification or pleasure derived from having a sense of purpose or meaning in one’s life, and often involves activities that benefit others. Both are desirable if not essential for flourishing.
Ideally this involves having an occupation where a person uses their unique talents and skills, for which there is an appreciative audience, for the benefit of others (e.g. enhancing their well-being in broad terms) as well as oneself. Flourishing involves feeling successful in relation to one’s own goals and ideals. In the optimal scenario, most of the time one’s occupation should not feel like work but rather, “Wow, I actually get paid to do this?!” An important element of flourishing is self-actualization in the sense that one’s skills and abilities are being utilized to their fullest and are not significantly limited by environmental constraints.
The goal here is to experience connection and intimacy in at least three domains: romantic, family, and friendships (which all involve different varieties of love). Ideally one experiences secure attachment in all three domains. Flourishing in a romantic relationship involves a stable relationship where both parties (assuming a dyad) feel that they are “in love” and where each person feels that by virtue of their relationship they can each be the best version of themselves. Family ideally involves a kinship group with a shared history and a commitment to each other’s material and instrumental security who collectively provide feelings of closeness, warmth, support and, when needed, unconditional love. Friendships should consist of multiple long-standing relationships characterized by reliable enjoyment, shared interests and activities, acceptance, affection and mutual respect. Note, however, that while having all three might be considered ideal, it might still be possible to flourish with none of these. Consider the devout Buddhist monk who may be part of a spiritual community but engages in silent meditation retreats for extended time periods.
Living an Optimal Life
Unlike flourishing, which is an ideal state, living an optimal life involves making the most of the circumstances in which one finds oneself. An optimal life involves experiencing flourishing as much as possible. It also includes the following characteristics.
- Finding a way to use one’s strengths and talents in ways that are rewarding and fulfilling, while rarely or infrequently being limited or confronted by one’s deficits, unresolved conflicts, or liabilities, whatever they might be.
- Having romantic, family, and friendship relationships that are satisfying and come as close as possible to approximating the ideal described above.
- Living in a context whereby one’s personality traits are appreciated and valued, knowing that every personality profile fits poorly in certain contexts.
- Having enough money to feel comfortable and not worry about having enough, i.e. financial security.
- Similarly, having sufficiently good health that does not significantly compromise opportunities for enjoyment.
- Able to balance work and play as desired, being sufficiently stimulated while having ample opportunities for restorative experiences.
- Discovering that disappointments, failures, and losses make what one does have all the more precious.
- Occasionally having a sense of wonder and awe at all that life has to offer, both natural and man-made.
- Living in a “savoring” mode – experiencing and appreciating the good things in life as much as possible.
As we ring in the New Year, this is a time to plan and perhaps think about resolutions (which are notoriously difficult to adhere to). Are there ways that we can draw on these ideas for our own personal well-being? Are there some ideas here that we can share with our patients?
This is a new area of thought and exploration for me. I’d welcome hearing everyone’s thoughts and ideas.
Warmest wishes for a healthy and productive 2021!
Richard D. Lane, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry & Psychology
With appreciation for helpful comments, suggestions and encouragement from Jordan Karp and Karen Weihs.