Article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Blake

How can we measure psychological health?

Not an easy question.

After all, mental health (or “existential fitness,” “inner strength,” etc.) isn’t like measuring a shoe size or a cup of sugar.

A thermometer makes it easy.

It goes in a mouth, measures the situation, and spits out a number. In comparison, the process for measuring body temperature is relatively straightforward.

But measuring psychological and mental health isn’t quite so easy.

We don’t have a “thermometer” for the mind, heart, or soul.

A body is a physical thing, which seemingly makes it easier to measure than a “mind” or “thoughts” or “feelings,” which aren’t physical things.

(They aren’t entirely physical things, anyway. A “feeling” might have physical or biochemical aspects, but the subjective, first-person dimension of a “feeling” itself isn’t something you can weigh, put in a bucket, measure the height or color of in any objective way, etc.)

Yet experts still argue over the best ways to measure physical health.

Psychological health is tougher. In these realms, they don’t even agree on what to measure, much less how to measure it. In some circles, they aren’t even asking the questions.

So: not easy.

That said, this isn’t a situation where we can just throw up our hands and give up.

After all, just because we can’t easily measure or quantify something doesn’t mean it’s not important. (There’s “love,” for example. Not easy to scientifically quantify, not exactly unimportant.)

So, for us non-academic, non-professional-researcher, regular folks who are just living life, the question stands: how can you measure psychological health?

There’s good news here.

To get a workable handle on this, we don’t necessarily need something like a thermometer that analyzes a situation and spits out a number.

For our purposes – folks just trying to navigate through life – a more helpful tool might be some kind of basic orientation that tells us to “Go that way!” and “Don’t go that way!”

We need something more like a North Star.

Before our snazzy modern technology – and before we fully mapped the world with any accuracy – sailors used to navigate by stars.

We don’t need numbers as much as fixed reference points to navigate by. In this sense, something like stars could be extremely useful to help us navigate the oceans of life with hearts and minds intact.

Or better yet, constellations – groups of stars that can orient us toward basic directions like north, south, east, and west – might do an even better job.

In that spirit, here are three potential “inner constellations.”

We can potentially use these to help us orient ourselves and navigate the oceans of life safely.

Aspects of this overall approach were also explored by philosopher Charles Bellinger in The Triumvirate Self. (Recommended reading for a deeper dive.)

(And to prevent a further mixing of metaphors here – and both “constellations” and “yardsticks” are helpful, but not perfect – for now, we’ll just go with “yardsticks.”)

Here, in no particular order, are three “yardsticks”:

“Relationship to others”

This “yardstick” is “nearness to or intimacy with others.”

The opposite is alienation from others.

“Health” lies in the “intimacy” direction. Lack of health is in the opposite.

Visually, we could graph this on a horizontal scale on the left to right (east-west) or X-axis.

This measure is relatively clear and straightforward. Most of us understand "intimacy" as opposed to "separation" or "isolation." An extreme case of nearly total isolation would be someone who is catatonic.

A second yardstick:

“Relationship to self”

This is nearness to or intimacy with oneself.

The opposite is alienation from oneself.

Health lies in the direction of being closer to oneself.

We could graph this visually on a scale of “in” to “out,” or 3D, or the Z-axis.

Unlike intimacy with others, this dimension raises a lot of questions. This is territory where many of us are less fluent.

How is it possible to be alienated from yourself?

It’s a good, rich, big question. The matter of “how to be yourself” – versus the opposite – is no small matter. Even to “know thyself” has been considered sage advice for thousands of years.

Like many complex personal issues, this topic often gets oversimplified and watered down. For example, some might portray it as simply a matter of choosing “the true self” over “the false self.” But how do we know which “self” is “true” and which is “false”? We often don’t. Are we “getting in touch with” our “true self,” or just our “ego”? Are we following our “heart,” or are we mistaking what we think is our “heart” for some stray whim, desire, or appetite?

It’s no small matter. To “know yourself,” in some ways, might be the most important “game” in all of the various “games of life.” *

This brings us to our third yardstick:

Relationship to “Ultimate Reality”

This is nearness to or intimacy with – what word to use? – The Absolute, The Godhead, the whole of reality, “as real as it gets,” – or maybe most simply, in a word, “God.”

The opposite is “alienation from God.”

Health lies in the direction of being closer to God.

We could graph this visually on a vertical scale of “lower” to “higher” or the Y-axis.

(To be clear, being “closer to God” here is meant in the experiential sense, not in a way that’s merely sentimental or intellectual.)

Some individuals, of course, are either skeptical or hesitant about “God” playing a significant role in human psychology. (It’s an idea explored here.) Some might have never been exposed to approaches along these lines that seem credible. No-nonsense approaches to these matters often compete against caricatures, bad apples, or simply those who don’t represent well.

But some basic elements of this can be quite commonsense.

For example, one basic point at stake here can be understood here with a very simple observation that dates back thousands of years. (Aristotle, for example, mentioned it.)

The basic idea points to essential differences between rocks and plants.

Self-evident: there’s something plants have that rocks don’t.

Plants are alive, while rocks seem to be – well, just things. Plants have a certain kind of life that rocks just don’t.

To most us, this isn’t a radical observation.

We can go further in this direction. Just as there are essential differences between rocks and plants, there are also essential differences between plants and animals. And between animals and humans. And between humans and (– if we keep going in that direction – “up”) – whatever or whoever it is that is “beyond” humans. (The assumption that we’re the top of the ladder is unproven.)

There are differences in complexity here. Humans are more complex than rocks. We shared a few elemental features in common (atoms and molecules, for example) – but at risk of stating the painfully obvious, we’re also more complex than plants. (With some possible exceptions.)

Together, this all forms a kind of “great chain of being” (to borrow a phrase from Lovejoy.)

In a way, the issue at play in this measure is reality itself.

“Reality,” taken as far as possible, points to Ultimate Reality.

“Ultimate Reality” could be stated, in a word, as “God.”

Of course, all of this brings up “The Big Questions of life,” or our answers to fundamental existential riddles which result in a basic worldview or life philosophy that orients everything we think and do. In this case, the “riddle” is about Ultimate Reality, or “who – or what – is ‘God’”?

In this sense, psychological health is an “everything problem.”

Many of us have at least a vague “sense” of some kind of “Ultimate Reality,” even if the details or specifics aren’t entirely clear. We didn’t invent ourselves out of whole cloth, and we aren’t in control here, but something or someone did, and is. For our purposes here, that’s enough.

That said, again: psychology is supposed to be scientific, and a common presumption is that matters like these are theological and play in an entirely different ballpark. The assumption, in other words, is that legitimate psychology must be atheistic.

But that approach assumes a materialistic (or atheistic) worldview. And blind allegiance to a materialistic worldview isn’t scientific.

All to say, this is fair game.

This doesn’t mean we have to dive headlong into abstruse theological pontifications. It only means that we can’t summarily and arbitrarily wipe the entire realm of “spirituality” off the table if our aim is to study and understand the human experience – which is supposed to be, at least nominally, the entire aim of psychology.

That said, for those uneasy with the word “God” (which often means individuals with a worldview of materialism, naturalism, or Pantheistic Monism with an “impersonal” Absolute at the bottom of if all) – the words “Ultimate Reality” can still serve our purpose here. The key ingredient is anything that has crossed the borders of hard atheism or nihilism, which means at least a bare minimum of openness to objective truth.

For anyone uneasy even with the words “objective truth” (which usually means postmodernists at their most exhausting) – this article might be helpful.

For anyone still uneasy with even that minimum degree of “truth” or “reality,” there isn’t really much to talk about, because according to them, all talk is meaningless anyway. It means their basic worldview or life philosophy is nihilism, and from that point, it’s all vertigo. Might as well play a tuba or chase fireflies, because why not?)

This might all seem a bit tedious.

But these are the points where things can often get weird.

Different sides can argue viciously about matters like these, each side pushing what seems obvious to them, blind to their own assumptions and talking past each other the entire time. This results in colossal (and tiresome) misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict.

Many argue certain conclusions to the death while fighting to stay miles away from any discussion whatsoever about the more basic assumptions those conclusions are based on. They might do this out of fear of an existential crisis. They might sense that their most basic assumptions about life are wrong. It’s better, they think, to stay wrong – but unexposed – than to just bite the bullet, expose it, and correct it all.

That said, when regarding the topic of “truth” or “reality” itself, there are some people who have actual experience with individuals who struggle with mental illness, and many of them understand the basic necessity of this idea. If our aim is to describe or explain certain conditions involved in mental illness or health, how can we? In some practical respects, the description of being “out of touch with reality” is enough. Call it “delusional” or a “hallucination” or “not sane” or simply “out of touch,” but all of that presumes something – some prior reality – that one is deluded away from, or the key ingredient that makes up the difference between a “hallucination” and a “genuine perception,” the difference between “sanity” and the lack of it – a “something” that one can be more in touch with, or less.

So, those are three ways to measure.

These “yardsticks” aren’t made of wood, and the game we’re hunting isn’t the kind we can see through binoculars or under a microscope.

Some professional psychologists are searching for ways psychological health can be objectively measured, quantified, expressed statistically, and so on.

It’s a worthy pursuit. Maybe in the next century or two or ten, they’ll make progress along these lines.

But in the meantime, again, the rest of us have to navigate through life.

For us, this is no matter of academic curiosity. We have to live, now. In this sense, these measures can be useful reference points, even if they don’t easily boil it all down to a simple, thermometer-like number.

That said, to really help us navigate effectively, we need one more element.

We need a “compass.”

Constellations can orient us in a general sense.

But we still need a direction. We need some kind of radar that lets us know where we are on the map.

Ideally, this “compass” would have to be something we carry around with us all the time. It would have to be something personal, unique, and custom-tailored just for us. It wouldn’t have the job of mapping out the terrain we’re traveling, but connecting our current location up with the “constellations,” which allows us to locate ourselves within that terrain.

We can call this “honesty.”

“Honesty” (we can be honest here) might sound a little hokey in a context of microscopes and lab-coats. Even old-fashioned.

It’s a non-scientific, non-technological word. (It might get more respect in academia if it was dressed up in fancier clothes. (Maybe we should call it “ontological veracity” or “cognitive rectitude,” or something? Jargon and unnecessary complexity seems gets more respect from certain folks.) But for our purposes here, “honesty” does the job just fine.

Good old, plain “honesty” plays a central role.

This can act something like a kind of inner radio antenna that picks up radio waves, if we adjust the dial and “tune in” to the right frequency. The whole process could work by activating and using a “spiritual component of human nature.”

The “dial” in this scenario could work by way of a few simple questions:

Are you being honest with yourself, right now? Are you being honest with others, right now? Are you being honest with God, right now?

Or, put slightly differently: Will you admit the truth, even when it’s hard, or not what you want, or unflattering?

Nobody else can really answer those questions for us.

This is like a door that can only be unlocked from the inside. Nobody can really eat, breathe, meditate, or understand algebra for us. Certain things only we can do. Psychological health is one of those, it seems, at least in some respects.

Nobody can “be honest” for us.

In that spirit, our answers to the questions mentioned above play central roles in our psychological health. And along those lines, a central fulcrum much of this revolves around is “know thyself.”

If we really “know ourselves” in the way we’re getting at here, all three of these dimensions can converge and work together in a kind of “synergy.”

This can lead to some interesting territories.

There are ways these three dimensions interconnect – or not.

We might imagine that it’s a simple matter: we just get intimate with others, and intimate with ourselves, and intimate with God – and then we all live happily ever after.

But of course, it isn’t always so simple.

Imagine, for example, that you’re surrounded by jerks.

Armed with our trusty yardsticks, we now have a few ways we can measure – or at least get a fresh perspective on – that situation.

If you’re “surrounded by jerks,” then you might be good with yourself (that’s one), and good with God (two), but not good with people around you (three.)

Or, let’s imagine a different scenario: imagine that you think you’re surrounded by jerks, but you’re actually surrounded by nice people – and you’re the jerk. (You just don’t realize it – which is to say, you don’t know yourself.) That would be a scenario where things are bad with others (one), bad with God (two) in the sense that your thinking is out of touch with reality – but good with “yourself” (or, to be more accurate, your “ego” – three.)

In a word, that could be described as “narcissism.”

Or we could imagine yet another scenario: someone might be very intimate with others (one), but not themselves (two) or God (three.) That could be a certain version of a “social butterfly.” *

Or another scenario: we could imagine a person who imagines themselves to be extremely in touch with God (one), while being really out of touch with both others (two) and themselves (three). That could be the recipe for a certain kind of religious extremist or cultist.

Or, we could imagine a person who is extremely in touch with God (one), and very in touch with themselves (two), but very out of touch with the people around them. This might be a different version of the first scenario above – a psychologically healthy person surrounded by jerks. (Imagine a healthy, sane person growing up in Germany in the 1930s, for example.) This could result in a less-than-healthy society targeting a healthy individual who doesn’t fit in with the dysfunction around them. In some cases, the individual might be an artist, or seer, or even a kind of sage or prophet who isn’t fitting in with the trendy, but is simply occupied with other things.

Individuals like these might be embraced and appreciated by others (eg, certain artists and celebrities), or they might reject others and live by themselves (e.g. Lao Tzu), or they might be assassinated and later revered (Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, various martyrs, etc.)

(Or again, someone might see themselves along these lines, accurately or not.)

Examples like these could go on.

All to say, none of this is simple.

The three measures themselves – self, other, God – can seem simple enough.

But they might work like the three primary colors (red, green, blue) that intersect to create unlimited combinations and color palettes, the results of which can be endlessly complex and fascinating.

In this way, a few simple markers can act as signposts.

The journey itself isn’t simple, of course. It’s loaded with challenges and obstacles. It’s the stuff of drama.

But this offers a basic orientation.

A general directive could be to “Move in the direction of greatest intimacy with others, yourself, and God, to the best of your ability, under the circumstances, using honesty as your guide.”

(Not a bumper sticker, exactly, but it gets the point across.)

This “movement” won’t happen by itself. Psychological health, for most of us, doesn’t just drop in our laps. We have to work for it. We have to move – to “travel,” in a sense, on the inside – from “here” to “there.”

This sketches out a rough path. From here, the “journey” can reveal deeper insights (about others, yourself, and God) as it progresses. It’s filled with a wealth of discoveries, hazards, and treasures.

But maybe – in some very basic ways – some parts of the journey are being charted, however roughly, like some of the early, misshapen, hand-drawn maps of the world.

We know, at least, that there’s a lot more of this world to explore.

Let’s roll.

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* “Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”
- Henry David Thoreau

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