A BASIC MODEL OF PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH
The following is a basic model of psychological health.
It briefly sketches an approach to what it is, how we attain it, and how we can lose it.
To set this up, a few words about what this is and why it came about might help.
Ideally, psychology is a “science of the soul.”
psyche or “soul”
ology or “branch of knowledge or science,” from logos (logic, reason, word, plan, etc.)
“Soul” could be said to refer to “the deepest part of us.”
“Science” often refers to a method that aims at producing genuine knowledge. At its best, it results in a body of knowledge that’s been thoroughly tested and rigorously examined with results that are highly reliable and trustworthy.
If we combine those two, the result is a science of the deepest part of us.
A “science” focused on “the deepest part of us”?
This points toward the possibility of genuine, rigorous, reliable knowledge regarding such seemingly slippery, complex, hard-to-handle things like “happiness,” “love,” mental health, and everything from The Big Questions of life to our personal relationships, and more – all approached scientifically.
But is this real?
Does “psychology” really exist in that sense?
Or, not really, in our humble assessment.
As a “science,” almost everyone would agree that the field is still in diapers. Mathematical certainty hardly applies in these realms.
After all, many psychologists don’t even define the word “psychology” this way, or even agree on a different definition. This illustrates a point we’ve made elsewhere (like here and here) that – frankly –mainstream psychology in its current state is a bit of a mess. We’re still a very long way from the actual field of psychology being anywhere near as advanced as, say, physics, math, or engineering.
That said, each of us still has to face living life.
Each of us still has to confront existential riddles on a day-to-day basis.
This brings a certain urgency to the matter.
We can wait centuries for science to figure everything out.
There are truckloads of theories in psychology, and mountains of “data.”
But making sense of all the theories and data is another thing entirely. The pieces don’t always fit together. They aren’t necessarily complete. They often seem to give us a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole picture.
But we have no choice but to come at it, however we can.
This often puts each of us in a position of coming at it ad-hoc.
For those of us interested in psychological health, we have to attack the problem with whatever resources we have.
This often means some part from a book here, a theory we ran across there, what our parents taught us over here, what we picked up from friends over there, and so on.
We make it up as we go along. We try to fit all the pieces together and apply them the best we can. It seems like our only choice in the matter.
But this can lead us to a certain predicament.
We can easily find ourselves approaching the issue of psychological or mental health without the right tools.
This can be like wanting to build a building, but without being trained in architecture, or math, or physics.
It can be done, of course. We’ve managed to build homes and buildings throughout history without necessarily knowing too much about advanced architecture, math, or physics.
But it hasn’t been systematic.
Once we really understood math and engineering and so on in greater depth, we became able to build much better buildings, much more consistently. It became less ad-hoc. It led to higher-quality buildings in less time on a regular basis.
This brief exploration aims in that direction. It’s an effort to be systematic in our approach to psychological health.
This isn’t to say it’s necessarily comprehensive, or that it covers the range of an entire discipline.
It’s meant, instead, to be practical. It’s a brief overview that offers a basic starting point, an ending point, and a general process for getting from one to the other.
“Psychological health” lies in the direction of “becoming yourself.”
Lack of psychological health means not becoming yourself, or losing yourself.
The phrase “know yourself” also applies here. “Knowing yourself” lies in the direction of psychological health.
Not knowing yourself lies in the direction of becoming a stranger to yourself, or self-alienation.
Let’s explore some of how this might play out in real life.
There are three basic phases of how the process of growth might work.
In a nutshell: it’s 1) a starting point, 2) a struggle, and 3) a resolution.
It’s like a three-act story structure (beginning, middle, and end) of psychological health.
1) Our starting point: the human being exists at the center of a number of forces.
Part of the human condition, right from the very beginning, consists in the experience of being pulled in several different directions at once.
Just a few examples of these opposing “forces”:
Passion and reason
Heart and mind
Spirit and body
Objectivity and subjectivity
Finitude and infinitude
Drama and boredom
Ease and tension
Freedom and necessity
Individual and collective
Actual and potential
Pride and humility
Perfection and imperfection
Animality and divinity (“worms and gods” ala Maslow)
“Fundamentally flawed” and “fundamentally perfect”
This list could go on. The number and variety of opposing forces are virtually unlimited.
Many thinkers agree on this basic point. This fundamental condition has been described, explicitly or implicitly, by a number of great thinkers and sages throughout history. Just to name a few: the thought of Pascal, Kierkegaard, Plato and Aristotle, the founders and architects of our major spiritual traditions (matter and consciousness, “dust” and “breath,” “illusion” and awakening, etc.), a number of modern cognitive scientists, and plenty of others often agree here. They either describe or assume the same basic idea while describing it in different ways.
“For after all what is man in nature?
A nothing in relation to infinity,
all in relation to nothing,
a central point between nothing and all
and infinitely far from understanding either.
The ends of things and their beginning
are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret.
He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn
and the infinite in which he is engulfed.
- Blaise Pascal
2) There’s a natural tension between these forces.
We often experience the opposing forces as contradictory.
It feels to us like a problem.
Conflict lies at the heart of drama. It’s the engine of stories, and stories are about us solving problems. We experience a problem, and we naturally want to resolve it.
These forces seem to pull us in opposite directions. We often experience them as a dilemma. We naturally want a resolution of that dilemma, either as one side, or the other, or both at the same time. But resolution also seems impossible, because they contradict. They don’t naturally go together.
Let’s imagine a basic, everyday example we’ve almost all faced in some form.
Imagine a guy – Will – has decided to give up sweets for a while. He wants to be healthier, or lose weight, or stick to a diet.
Then one day, Will find himself face-to-face with a big, juicy piece of cake.
At this moment, he experiences inner conflict.
This conflict could be described in a number of ways, from a number of perspectives. It’s conflict between the “heart” and “head,” for example, or “passion” versus “reason,” or “the ideal” versus “the real,” and so on.
This is just one simple illustration of the basic condition described above: it’s a human being existing at the center of forces with a natural tension between them. One “force” is saying “don’t eat the cake.” The other is saying, “eat the sucker.”
These options contradict. Will can’t both eat the cake and not eat the cake at the same time.
The dilemmas aren’t always this clear-cut. They’re often unconscious. They’re also experienced at different times instead of simultaneously – that is, they take the form of coming to contradictory conclusions on an issue at different times. For example, we might decide at one moment that we’re fundamentally flawed. A few hours later, we might decide that we’re fundamentally perfect. So, which is it? Which conclusion is true? These two conditions seem contradictory. It seems impossible to be both at the same time. And so, we often alternate, back and forth, between different answers at different times.
“Life swings like a pendulum
backward and forward
between pain and boredom.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer
3) We can resolve this tension in a way that leads to either greater health, or less.
We can picture this predicament as being between two forces or “poles,” as in polarity.
We can imagine one as being physically on our left, the other on our right.
Our task, then, is to resolve this dilemma.
This basic situation appears in many different ways in many different forms, but the underlying dynamic is always the same.
There seem to be four different ways to resolve this dilemma.
1) To unbalance.
This resolution is to move all the way toward one side and completely away from the other.
This would mean trying to completely affirm one pole and negate the other. It tries to move all the way in the direction of the left, for example, and completely away from the right. Or vice versa.
2) To compromise.
This is to split the difference.
It might mean splitting things halfway, 50/50, or in some proportion, like 70/30.
3) To transcend.
This means seeking out the valid aspects of both sides, and finding some way to reconcile them.
It means embracing both sides fully and working to achieve a perspective that resolves the contradiction. It achieves a new resolution where the two sides no longer contradict. It can sometimes lie in seeing that the problem itself was false to start with.
4) To negate.
This means moving away not just from one side (as in solution #1), but moving away from the other side as well. It means rejecting both sides.
This can mean moving away from the problem entirely. This might mean seeing that one side isn’t completely correct, while also seeing that the other side also isn’t completely correct, and giving up on even trying to solve it. It can also mean denial – “solving” a problem not by fully transcending it, but by trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist by ignoring it.
A few basic examples are in order.
In the “Will on a diet facing a cake” conundrum above, we can imagine solving the problem in a few different ways.
For example, we could decide to “Just eat the cake!”
This is a version of Solution #1, to “unbalance.”
This would mean moving in the direction of one “pole” and negating the other. For example, Will could eat the entire cake and have a blast doing it, but then feel guilty afterward. His stomach is happy (temporarily,) but his mind gets demoralized (also temporarily.)
Or, Will could solve this in the opposite direction: he decides not to eat the cake at all.
This is another version of Solution #1. It would have the same basic dynamic as above, but in reverse. It would mean that his mind gets satisfied, in that he’s lived up to his hopes and expectations for himself – but his stomach feels cheated, and he leaves the situation feeling deprived and resentful.
Again, the above two scenarios are both examples of solution #1, “unbalancing.”
To summarize this route:
- a tyranny of the heart (“eat the cake!”)
-> “happy heart | unhappy head”
-> “heartful but mindless”
- or a tyranny of the head (“don’t eat the cake!”)
-> “unhappy heart | happy head”
-> “mindful but heartless”
We could also try some of the other solutions.
For example, there’s solution #2: a compromise.
Will might eat just a little cake, but not much. He might eat just enough to where he doesn’t feel like he’s depriving himself, but not so much that he feels like he’s betraying himself. He “bribes” both sides enough to allow for a certain amount of peace.
What would solution #3, “transcendence,” look like?
To an outside observer, it might look exactly the same as any of the answers above. It could mean, for example, either eating it, not eating it, or eating just a little.
But it would be clear to Will. The difference would like in the lack of conflict afterward, or even the feeling that both sides got bribed just enough to be acceptable. The result isn’t Will feeling as if he’s either betrayed his ideals or deprived himself. There’s a unity between head and heart, where they’re now on the same team, and each wants the best for the other. They’re unified on that common goal. However, it works out externally is almost arbitrary at that point. Will exits the situation intact, or even – in regards to psychological health – even stronger.
What would solution #4, negation look like?
It would take the form of trying to avoid the problem altogether. It might mean outright denial (“Diet? What diet?”) – or extreme efforts to avoid encountering cake anywhere in life. It might mean becoming cakeaphobic, or dietaphonic. In an extreme case, it could mean suicide, by either slow means or fast.
That’s a single, mundane example.
Of course, we usually struggle with much weightier problems.
But the same fundamental dynamics can be extrapolated from even the most mundane situations. Once we learn to swim in shallow water, so to speak, we can move on to deeper water. So, even this example of a seemingly insignificant event entails a number of other conflicts: head vs. heart, passion vs. reason, self-indulgence vs. self-denial, ultimate worth vs. ultimate lack of worth, and so on.
This essential dynamic plays itself out in the course of many other conflicts.
A more serious question, for example:
Are we fundamentally flawed, or fundamentally “perfect”?
This question goes to the heart of “self-esteem.”
Our answer to this problem might take the same course as Will wrestling with the cake. We might decide after a bad day, for example, that we are “fundamentally flawed” and “everything we do is wrong.”
Or, we might decide, after a good day, the opposite: that we are fundamentally perfect, and everything we do is right.
Or (solution #2), we might decide that we’re sometimes right and sometimes wrong, depending on the situation.
Or (solution #3), we might decide that we’re creatures that are simultaneously flawed in some ways and “perfect” in others, where perfection and imperfection are somehow mixed simultaneously, where we’re able to simultaneously strive for ideals but also laugh at our failings, and forgive them, and so on.
Genuine spiritual traditions can offer a good deal of help with resolving this. For example, Buddhism might declare that the Buddha-nature is our “Original nature,” which is “perfect” or complete, while also acknowledging that we’re mired in suffering, desire, and illusion. Judeo-Christianity might talk about our flawed nature as the result of “sin” while also admitting grace, or the statement that everything originally created was “good.” Hinduism might emphasize that we’re trapped in samsara or illusion while also describing the reality of “Atman” or that we feel imprisoned while paradoxically being already free. And so on. These all describe our fundamental situation and the possibility of a kind of “spiritual awakening.”
All of these can seem to point in a similar direction.
Overall, greater health lies in the way of greater complexity.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence
is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time
and still retain the ability to function.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
In one direction, we experience that we’re “becoming more ourselves.” We know ourselves more, and become more integrated and whole.
In the other direction is a way of less complexity.
It’s possible for us to know ourselves less, to become less of ourselves, to become more strangers to ourselves. (Eg: "He's a shadow of his former self.") When a great center doesn’t hold, it gets reduced down into its component parts. In psychological terms, less “self” in this sense means more inner conflict. Without a greater force to reconcile them, head battles heart, passion battles reason, spirit battles body, and so on. When psychological health breaks down, the “self” becomes more of a battleground of warring opposites. We can reduce ourselves down to skin-encased bags of squabbling appetites.
With psychological health comes a greater ability to reconcile, transcend, and harmonize those opposites.
Scattered thoughts can “gel” into a coherent “mind.” Scattered feelings can “gel” into a coherent “heart.” A body, mind, and heart can harmonize for a single individual person. Separate persons or individuals can unify to become a team, unit, or family.
And the reverse. A team, unit or family can disintegrate (literally, dis-integrate) down to a pack of squabbling individuals. An individual can disintegrate down to a mob of conflicting parts, where body, mind, heart, and soul are all in conflict with one another. A heart can dissolve into a ravenous pack of competing feelings. A mind can degrade into a disorganized mess of competing thoughts.
And so on.
Psychological health lies in the direction of greater complexity, unity, and wholeness, while lack of psychological health lies in the direction of disintegration, a splintering, and a reduction to more simple elements.
So, in a nutshell:
We’re physical creatures. We have bodies, with limits. There are constraints to what we can do and what we can become. In a word, we’re finite.
But at the same time, we’re also more than just that. We naturally strive against these limits at every turn. We’re constantly struggling to transcend these limits, in every moment. What drives this? We seem to have something in us – call it awareness, or consciousness, or “souls,” or “spirit,” or some “spiritual component of human nature.” This opens up possibility. It allows us to become something more than what we currently are. We’re endowed with real potential – potential for better, or for worse. In a word, one way to describe this is to say that there’s some aspect of us, buried however deeply, that’s infinite.
These two elements don’t naturally mix. There’s tension between them. We even experience them, in fact, as contradictory.
Our task, then, lies in integrating them.
We’re tasked with integrating the finite realities of who we are with the infinite possibilities of who we can become.
Through the work of synthesizing these, we become ourselves. And when that happens, it’s a good thing.
"As human beings we are made to surpass ourselves
and are truly ourselves
only when transcending ourselves."
- Huston Smith
“Reason tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.
Between these poles, my life unfolds.”
- Kalu Rimpoche
“The meaning of earthly existence
lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering
but in the development of the soul.”
- Aleksander Solzhenitsyn