SEVEN KEYS TO A HAPPY LIFE
a talk by William C. Menninger, M.D.
My particular interest lies in the positive aspect of mental health. Conceivably, how can we who are presumably mentally healthy become more mentally healthy? I want to discuss our emotional growth, our emotional life, under the general title, "emotional maturity".
Emotional maturity is, in many ways, identical to the concept of good mental health. Emotional maturity, like mental health, is an ideal state. Many psychiatrists give the impression that they are concerned only with severely ill people, those who must be hospitalized. This is led to the belief that psychiatric problems are synonymous with illnesses that require commitment to mental hospitals.
First, we must recognize the fact that all of us have some state of mental health all the time. And even if we think everybody else is odd, sometimes we are too. Each of us has emotional quirks and problems. We can approach perfect mental health for only a few minutes, or a few hours, or a few days. Sooner or later, when we run against a buzzsaw, we aren't at the time quite as mentally healthy as we once were, and soon may be again. Even if we don't admit it, the folks around us usually know it. Emotional maturity is a theoretical concept towards which we can strive.
There are many facets of the personality: the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and others. These are affected by inherited traits like our intelligence and our physical selves. Some of them must be developed and trained like our emotions. The result is that we see in individuals strange combinations of degrees of maturity. One may be quite mature in one area and quite immature in another. One can be an intellectual genius and at the same time a social moron. We are familiar with outstanding men who are wizards in their jobs but complete flops as fathers; and the efficient, meticulous housewife who does not know how to make love.
I propose to discuss seven criteria of emotional maturity. I like to think of them as potential yardsticks for a bit of healthy, personal self-examination. They can serve, in some degree, as life goals if we want to achieve the most of our own personality.
The first of these I would define, briefly, as having the ability to deal constructively with reality. By reality, I mean the world we live in, with all the hostility that surrounds us. Selfishness, suspicion, lack of understanding, pursuit by witch-hunters, dishonesty, disappointment and loss, and many, many more attitudes and experiences make life very difficult at times.
Normally, small children and severely ill adults can ignore reality, but most of the time, most of us cannot. If we are reasonably mature, we can play the cards that are dealt to us in life, keeping in mind that we can have much to say about these cards and even quite a little about the game to which we sit down. If we are healthy, it means that, of necessity, we have learned how to accept frustration with a fair degree of grace, in order to gain something we want in the future.
Unfortunately, there are too many people who continue throughout their whole life that childhood practice of demanding, "I want what I want when I want it, and something will pop if I don't get it." They have never learned to accept what reality is, namely that if something is worth having, it is going to require effort, saving, and planning. Being able to deal constructively with reality implies that we have developed other intangible qualities that make us feel secure enough to tolerate delay in gaining satisfaction.
There are two kinds of security. One is a piece of mind which comes from an inner reservoir [of] strength, so that when the going gets rough, we don't get jittery, and jumpy, and upset. This serenity permits us to stand some pretty high waves. Then there is necessity for external security. In this, our experience can vary so widely, from a very secure birth in a home, to existence in a fox-hole. Insecurity may be provoked by family situations, by relations with associates. There is nothing so tough as to be blackballed, to be rejected, whether by one's parents, or one's associates. At least minimal economic security can be a favorable factor in the maintenance of good mental health.
Emotional maturity implies that refusal, inappropriately, to take flight or to fight when faced with difficult reality. It is easy to run off when blows fall. We find many ways of doing just that. If we wish, we can go to sleep and momentarily escape our thoughts. Sometimes we become ill in order to run away. We can watch other people use innumerable ways to avoid or to fight reality. Most often, fighting a situation destroys, rather than improves the situation. Rarely, if ever, does becoming angry help. We have learned the hard way that world wide combat as well as personal fighting brings destruction.
As mature individuals, we must devise ways of facing reality by neither flight nor fighting, but by making constructive compromises.
The second criterion is having the capacity to adapt to change. Life is a continuing series of changes. An individual is a constantly changing person. Changes in ourselves may or may not correspond to changes in the environment in which we live. The most conspicuous feature of our present way of life is the almost unbelievable number of changes, sometimes from hour to hour, in the way we live, which are the result of things with which we work, the gadgets that surround us, and the different areas in which we function.
Our present era is one of such rapid change, that many of us feel great concern as to whether the destructive power of man can be controlled. It has changed to the point where one person, literally, could alone start the action that could blow up the world. Have we the capacity to change, to mature sufficiently to control such power? Daily, each of us is confronted with new experiences and opportunities which require adaptation and growth, whether it be on the job, as a mother or father, or as a citizen.
So many of the problems a psychiatrist sees are related to the failure on the part of parents to grow. Parents of today can't use the same rules as their mothers and fathers. Failure to grow inevitably causes problems. We recognize that other person who is so rigid, that he can't change at all. We are annoyed he cannot adapt himself to conform to rules and we describe him as being stubborn. There is also the adult who continues to use the same kind of device he used to solve his childhood problems, the same kinds of explanations and alibis. It is in our early, formative years that we develop our basic pattern of response, which becomes modified if we mature, or remains the same if we do not. Again, it's the other person who fails to profit from experience, repeating the same mistakes and problem-solving.
Perhaps, so far as mental illness is concerned, one of our biggest problems is the disease called alcoholism. If this disease were contagious, we would say it had created a national emergency. Right now, there are five million people cursed with difficulty in handling the use of alcohol, never apparently being able to learn and to profit from their experience.
If we are to be mature, we must have resiliency, no matter what our age, to adjust, to adapt, to change.
A third criterion of emotional maturity can be described as having a relative freedom from symptoms that are produced by tensions and anxieties. Things happen in the lives of all of us, no matter what kind of home we had during the particularly important first few years that have affected our personalities. Early experiences have warped some individuals to a considerable degree. On others, they have set such limits, that what was an adequate response at six years of age is still used at age forty-six, but is no longer appropriate.
But in most of us, these early experiences have established basic patterns which have been modified later. When there is conflict between reality and what we are and do, tension and anxiety may be felt. We may express this by unreasonableness, illogical thinking, irrational behavior, or in physical symptoms of headache or stomach pain. In psychiatric jargon, we call these "neurotic evasions".
We have friends who are far too aggressive, so aggressive it is difficult to be around them and not want to hit them over the head now and then. They must try to keep the center of the stage. They are so conceited it is difficult to listen to them. There are those among us who are too passive, so passive that they don't do anything. And, incidentally and paradoxically, they are aggressive in their passivity. They are the hangers-on; something happened in their early childhoods that left them feeling comfortable only when holding on to someone's apron string, far beyond the time they should have reached out for independence. There are many people who are very shy, and therefore usually lonesome. They would like to be in the swim, but they don't know quite how to manage it. Perhaps they received severe psychological injuries from running into buzzsaws, which makes them fear being hurt again.
One of the commonest psychiatric problems during World War II was the youngster who resented authority. In his childhood, he had been allowed or forced to buck those who had authority over him. His natural reaction was to object, to revolt. In adolescence, this is a transient state for most of us. Adults who have not learned to accept authority create serious problems.
Many among us feel inadequate too much of the time. At times we all do. It is the individual who never feels inadequate for whom I really feel sorry. But there are those who are popularly described as feeling inferior. They never have the right clothes, they can't "keep up with the Jones's", they compare themselves unfavorably to others and feel miserable about it too. This [is] self-punishment which stems from personality problems in early life.
Quite apart from these, in order to get along with other people, all of us learn to use psychological devices we call "defense mechanisms", [or] escapes. From our technical point of view, these are unknowingly called into play to solve conflict. One of the most frequently used by all of us is rationalization, a simple definition of which is: something of which I am quite sure and justifies my belief in it and my right to argue about it; even though the person is in error. Rationalization enables one to resist a difference of opinion because he is confident he is right. His attitude is, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts." And we all are apt to rationalize about what we believe or don't believe or things we did or didn't do.
Another way to avoid problems is to blame other people for our own faults; this is projection: "It wasn't my fault we lost the game, it was his." Whatever is wrong is the other person's responsibility. A very common defense is used by everyone, a defense we hear on radio and on TV. In fifteen minutes, I have heard cures for tension headaches advertised twice. Our emotions often express ourselves through our physical bodies. The frequent complaint of the G.I. was, "Oh, my aching back!" No more than five percent of the backs showed anything was organically wrong. That did not mean that the other ninety-five percent did not hurt. Next time you've had a frightful day and get a tension headache, just let someone try to tell you your head doesn't hurt.
Other somatic expressions of emotional distress are variations in heartbeat, gastro-intestinal upsets. It's been found that sixty to eighty percent of all symptoms about which patients complain to their doctors are related to emotional distress. These are ways by which we sometimes take flight, too. We also can express aggression through them. Having a good tension headache is a wonderful club over the rest of the family, a tremendously powerful way to make them march to your tune. We would be wiser, and we would see ourselves in the state of our mental health (namely, the degree of our emotional maturity) more clearly if we could recognize our use of these various devices for what they are. I do not want to create unnecessary concern by discussing these things, so let me give you my philosophy of doing something about this business of comparative freedom from signs of tension and anxiety.
There are people that enjoy their symptoms. Others think they can do nothing about them until they understand their cause. However, you don't have to know the cause of a fire to start putting it out. I dare to suggest that this principle applies in the alleviation of our tension.
My fourth criterion is having the capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than in receiving. We come into the world a hundred percent on the receiving end of the line, with everything coming our way. Gradually, the process reverses. From the point of view of mental health, the mature adult is most often on the giving end. And I hasten to say that no one should give up all gratification from receiving, for others too want to give. In fact, much giving results in receiving appreciation. We give love and enjoy receiving it in return. Obviously, if one gives only to be rewarded, or as a way of demanding appreciation, his motive is not a healthy one.
The less mature person asks, "What has that to do with me? What do I get out of it?" When in contrast, the more mature person's questions are, "What has that to do with us? What can we contribute? What can we put into it?" There's also a relationship between one's capacity to give and to what he receives. All of us have the need to depend upon someone else. We need a spouse to share with us, children to rejoice with us; otherwise, we miss much in life. We need to have re-fueling stations no matter how autonomous we think we are. Quiet times, vacations, good friends, and among others, receiving and renewing, make it possible to be what Harry Emerson Fosdick calls a "real person".
The big person is rare. The world is filled with many small potatoes who do now grow up in their capacity to give, to give of themselves, of their substance, of their energy and their time. In all of our communities, it is only a handful of folks who carry the volunteer load. They meet each other on each community fund drive. For the best mental health, for the greatest emotional maturity, the individual must have a cause, a mission, an aim in life that is constructive and that is so big, that he has to keep working on it. Good causes with constructive opportunities exist in every community. There is still validity in the old admonition, "If you would save your life, lose it." That is basic to good mental health and following it is an indication of emotional maturity.
The fifth criterion is having the capacity to relate to other people in a consistent manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness. This criterion is perhaps of particular significance to our greatest responsibility: to children, our children. If we look even superficially at our current social order we see much evidence of failures of people to get along with each other; i.e. the number of broken homes, the discharge rate in business and industry, etc. of which eighty percent is due to social, not technical incompetence. People in our midst can't play the game by the rules on which the rest of us agree. They are poor sports, delinquents, criminals. Others delight in scape-goating and witch-hunting. Bickering and sniping are engaged in between all kinds of groups, social, racial, economic, political, religious, etc.
The capacity of getting along with each other depends on various factors in our personalities. Going back to one I've already mentioned, I don't believe anyone really can get along harmoniously with other people, unless he's willing to give or mature enough to give. We can say that the person who gives the most probably gets along best, not because other people bleed him, but because he finds satisfaction in working with them. This requires the ability to identify with others, to try to understand them even when they are difficult. One does not necessarily have to agree with someone else, at least entirely, or even to approve of certain actions, in order, at the same time, to respect him.
Another measure is whether one is able to form a permanent loyalty, not merely to those who are personally advantageous, when it's expedient, or during fair weather. There are many of us who are superficial in our friendships and in our relationships. How many intimate, close friends do you have? None of us has or needs very many, but to have none is our fault because of our immaturity. If we can relate comfortably to other people, this is mutually helpful and stimulating.
In contrast is the person who seems to get enjoyment in making other people unhappy; by, in a broad sense, "being mean", making excessive demands, by restrictive or punitive attitudes, or by being neglectful. As parents, we are all guilty, at times, in one way or another, in respect to our children. The good employer who, in a literal sense, is a figurative father is considerate of his employees and the teacher of his pupils.
How many, many times we forget to say "thanks" to each other. There are personality traits or characteristics, which, with all our marvelous development in the field of psychology and personality testing, we have not found a way to test and measure; for example, some of the most important traits that we know the mature person has. They develop from the experience of growing up in a family where these traits are present.
Perhaps the most important of these traits, in any personality, is sincerity. We can quickly sense whether a person is sincere or insincere. We can usually recognize the phony. We know when the effusive handshaker does not mean his welcome. How do we measure integrity, the combination of honesty, fairness, dependability, and willingness to assume responsibility? How do we learn to accept criticism, from which we should learn to profit if we are to mature? How do we learn to win modestly and to lose graciously? All of these are facets of our capacity to relate to other people. I believe we can each learn to look at ourselves objectively enough to see where we need to improve.
The sixth criterion is having the capacity to subliminate, to direct one's instinctive, hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets. Our current theoretical understanding of the personality is that it includes both a constructive and a destructive drive. Again, it's our emotions that get us into trouble, our destructive, aggressive impulses, would that we knew better how to curve their expressions. But most of thetime, we do not even recognize them for they are so successfully hidden from our conscious thinking. The recognition of our own aggressive acts and impulses is basic to channeling them into constructive channels, which [is] so important if we are to emotionally mature and [be] mentally healthy.
At times, we turn the hostility on to ourselves. Unreasonable feelings of inferiority or the guilt that tortures, for which there is no known cause, are examples of feelings that can paralyze us and prevent us from doing something worthwhile. All of us have a certain degree of self-defeatism. The ultimate and extreme expression of hating oneself in this way is suicide.
We all express hostilities within the family circle, though sometimes we do not see even that we're being unkind or inconsiderate or thoughtless of another member of the family whom we would say (in fact, we could swear) that we loved dearly. Indeed we do love them, but at the same time we do things to hurt those we love most. We have many ways of getting even with that "other guy", our spouse or our child. You know how long it takes to get a button sewed on. In certain families, someone always has to wait for the other person. In yours? Would that you and I could see our own aggressions, and more clearly, that we might channel them into less hurtful actions and words.
The difficulty is really maturing sufficiently to treat our friends the way we would want to be treated. You know the golden rule, and the admonition of "love thy neighbor as thyself". This is truly a challenge. Most of us don't quite follow this rule, but that doesn't make it the less ideal goal. We can hope that we can discover how to be more thoughtful, considerate, and helpful. The pettiness, the hostilities, the aggressions are also turned on society in general by those who lack socialresponsibility.
Such a prevalent attitude among many individuals of "me first" is not healthy for the community. Paternalism increases as more people expect some kind of handout. It manifests itself as a matter of pride for those who brag about how much they get away with, by running a red light or ignoring an important deficiency in themselves. Hostility is also expressed by stinginess and cheating. Hate can be sublimated. It can be directed into constructive outlets and it is the mature person who finds ways to do this in the home and in the community, by activities of all sorts, work, recreation, creation.
And finally, the seventh criterion and the most important is having the capacity to love. By love, I refer to a broad usage of the word, caring. How much do we care? How do we learn to care? As infants, if we were fortunate, if [we] had parents who expressed their love by looking after us, we learned to love in return by developing an inter-dependence in our initial family. I wish this allegiance could be maintained throughout life. From the family, we learn to like and enjoy being with other people, to give affection, and to have an interest in those outside the family. Later in life, for those of us who were fortunate enough, we found someone we loved very much. We started a new family by giving to each other and giving to our children.
The ideal from which true self-happiness can come is the hope that all of us might continue and extend our caring beyond the family, to our community, to our state, to our nation, and to a very small world. There aren't enough of us who have the capacity to care and have the recognition that killing people won't solve problems. We have to have to capacity to love enough to find new solutions. Even enemies know that their salvation depends on the salvation of all groups. The way we've tried to settle things in the past, by mass murder, isn't going to solve difficulties today. It would only annihilate the world we live in. Love is the only neutralizing agent for hate.
I want to state clearly my own feeling. The world is full of hate in so many forms. Hate begins in the minds of men, yours and mine. If we care enough, we must see this hate for what it is, then hopefully help more people to learn how to love more, until all hate is neutralized.