As you know, I’ve often compared mental fitness to physical fitness – suggesting that the same principles apply. People who desire to stay in good physical shape don’t stop exercising or eating in a healthy manner just because they’ve achieved certain fitness or weight goals. Staying in shape becomes something that they do as regularly as brushing their teeth or taking out the trash or going to work. In line with those principles, The Mental Health Gym is designed to promote certain attitudes and skills to make mental fitness an ongoing and regular part of life.
Another analogy that I believe has merit is to think of mental fitness as being analogous to learning a foreign language – particularly if you are a relatively new convert to the mental fitness lifestyle. Learning a foreign language occurs in different stages. Early in the process, we can take pride in recognizing letters and words as well as speaking a few easy words, phrases, and sentences. We may advance from there to being able to read some easy books or articles and maybe even converse with someone who knows the language and is willing to be patient with us. If we have elementary knowledge of the language of a country that we are visiting, we may be able to read street and subway signs well-enough to get around, and we may be able to read a restaurant menu sufficiently to keep from starving – but we are likely to need to rely on the tolerance of natives to really get by. Truly committed language students, however, reach the point of being able to comfortably go into a club and socialize or listen to a lecture or read a newspaper in a native language with a high degree of comprehension.
The entire thing is a process – and the process varies from person to person, based upon personal goals and time frames. Is the language being learned as part of the process of becoming more generally well educated? Is it step one of a sequence that will continue for another 4-6 years of schooling? Or do we want to learn enough to quickly prepare us for a short vacation? We may wish to learn in a different manner if we are facing a job transfer and we want to be able to integrate into the culture and social life of a country where we will be living for several years?
Our backgrounds also play a significant role in this regard. Learning a language is easier if we have strong verbal skills or if we’ve had exposure to it in our homes or neighborhoods or if we attended a school system that emphasized languages from an earlier age. Keeping all these things in mind should help us to recognize that the process of learning a language is an individual one, and that’s how our progress should be assessed.
The same principles apply to mental fitness. Some people have an easier time becoming mentally fit if they’ve enjoyed good health, good intelligence, a supportive family life, and/or not having had to worry about money. At the same time, I’ve known a number of people who have fit into any or all of these categories – yet been manifestly unhappy. Just as is the case with learning a foreign language, one’s background can be a help but not a guarantee, and a less than optimal background should never be an excuse for not setting reasonable goals for achieving an improved level of mental fitness. It may be appropriate for some to get specialized psychological assistance to help with goal setting and achievement just as it may be appropriate for some language students to get extra tutoring. Just remember that – since as your background isn’t exactly the same as someone else’s, your goals and the process of achieving them should be uniquely yours. Your evaluation of progress should also be a unique one based upon where you’ve come from and where you want to get. There are always new things to learn and achieve, and that makes personal growth and mental fitness a never-ending process.
What do you think? Does the analogy make sense to you?