Emotional health is the sense that what is happening, is happening now. It is experiencing the world as first-hand, immediate, rather than only knowing what was experienced when you reflect upon it later. You are, as the sports commentators put it, ‘in the zone’.
You feel real rather than false. You are comfortable in your skin: you do not wish you could be someone else, nor do you look down on others for not being like you. You know what you are thinking and feeling, even if sometimes that only means knowing that you don’t know.
You have your own consistent ethical code which enables you to distinguish right from wrong. You are stoical in the face of adversity, realistic in your ideas and often seem to be wise in your judgements.
You have the capacity for insight into your own actions. You can sometimes spot in advance when you are about to make a mistake and avoid it, or can see when you are reacting irrationally to a situation and correct yourself – so having crashed the car, you do not do it again; you can notice that the lights have changed or a wall is approaching, and turn the steering wheel. This gives you that nectar of the soul, the capacity for choice, and therefore, for change. Such self-awareness is what sets us apart from other animals.
In your moment-to-moment dealings with other people, you are a good judge of what they are feeling and thinking. You are able to live in the place where self and others meet, without tyranny. You do not get either ‘jammed on transmit’ or ‘jammed on receive’. You live without flooding or dominating others, nor are you flooded or dominated.
You are adaptable, but without losing yourself. When in social or professional situations which demand a measure of falsehood, you can put on a face to meet the faces that you meet without losing your sense of authenticity. Your real self is as close as possible to the one you are presenting to others, depending on what is feasible. For if a lie is necessary, you lie.
Your vivacity is striking, there is a liveliness you bring to any situation, but it is not frenetic and does not smack of ‘keeping busy’ to distract from bad feelings. You are spontaneous and always searching for the playful way to handle things, retaining a child-like sparkle, a conviction that life is to be enjoyed, not endured. You are not bogged down in needy, childish, greedy, game-playing manipulation.
You may suffer depressions, rages, phobias, all manner of problems, from time to time. You make mistakes. But because of your emotional health, you are able to live in the present and find the value in your existence, whatever is going on, and this makes you resilient.
When people leave your presence, they often feel better able to function, more vivacious and playful. Your emotional wellness rubs off on them. You are no martyr but you are widely regarded as a valuable contributor to your social and professional circles.
Have you ever met anyone like this? No, nor have I.
But this is what I mean by emotional health. None of us are emotionally healthy at all times, in all these ways. Most of us achieve it only in some of the respects outlined above, and only some of the time; very few manage this kind of emotional health in many of those respects and most of the time – perhaps 5 or 10 per cent of us. Helping you to edge closer to emotional health is the object of this book.
Who has emotional health? Possessing emotional health has nothing to do with how intelligent or attractive or ambitious or rich you are. In fact, it is possible that high achievers are the least likely to be emotionally healthy, of any group. Many emotionally healthy people have relatively low-paid, low-status jobs and focus more on their home than their work lives.
Most of us are born emotionally healthy. A baby knows exactly who he or she is. Most toddlers know who they are and, when they feel safe, are spontaneously joyful. The play of small children offers a model to all adults. It is usually when children go to school, especially from ages seven to nine, that the challenges to emotional health arise most visibly. As the pressure to fit in and compare themselves with others builds, it becomes increasingly normal not to be emotionally healthy. Not until late middle age or old age, after a long period of being largely defeated by the challenges, does emotional health begin to return, if at all. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’
One way to look at it is as a kind of seven ages of emotional health, akin to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, in which we start off healthy and only become that way again towards the end. This may be borne out by three massive surveys of mental illness in the British population, according to which the group most likely to suffer from mental illness are those aged sixteen to twenty-four, with a steady decline in mental illness from then on, reaching the lowest levels in old age. Once you have passed early adulthood, your likelihood of being mentally healthy improves with each year.
What emotional health is not But it is important to remember that emotional health is not defined by either mood or sanity. It is a different matter from mental health. An emotionally healthy person could be depressed or deluded, although this is probably rare.
Emotional health is defined by the positives described above, whereas mental health is largely defined negatively, by the absence of mental illnesses like anxiety, or more extreme problems like the mood swings of bipolar disorder. Nonetheless, it is interesting that when rare attempts are made to measure mental health (rather than mental illness) positively, it is found to be almost as rare as the emotional variety. An American psychologist called Robert Keyes did a thorough study of 3,000 people. Only 17 per cent of them were ‘completely mentally healthy’, defined as flourishing and without any signs of mental illness.
It is very abnormal for an adult in any developed nation to be completely emotionally healthy. Indeed, it may be rare in all urbanized, industrialized settings. At the risk of invoking idealized Noble Savages, it may only be the norm in pre-industrial settings – small villages or hunter-gatherer (itinerant) societies with no settled agriculture; it is certainly not so in our modern society.
Nor should emotional health be conflated with ideas like ‘life satisfaction’ or ‘well-being’, nor with happiness. This latter is usually a fleeting state, the feeling of pleasure you gain from sex or a cigarette, or the satisfaction on hearing of a successful exam result. Beware of authors bearing gifts of happiness. It is psychological snake oil. In this author’s opinion, we were not put on this earth to be happy, but it is plausible to suppose that we can be more emotionally healthy.
Oliver James is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and a Psychotherapist at the John Bowlby Centre and since 1988, has worked as a writer, journalist, broadcaster and television documentary producer and presenter. His books include the bestselling They F*** You Up, Affluenza, Contented Dementia and Office Politics.