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Pop Discourse On Mental Wellness

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Hearsay, Responsibility, and Stereotypes


M.A. Clinical Psychology

What comes to your mind when you hear these words “mental wellness”?

Dimensions of Mental Wellness

  • You might think it’s feeling good about oneself and life in general. You can remember a state of joy, excitement, affection, hope, or sensuality and associate it with being happy or healthy. Research suggests that heredity has a strong role to play in our subjective well-being. This is further supported by the “set point theory” which states that we’ve a baseline level of happiness determined at a very early age. The life events alter them briefly but we return to the familiar level of positive affectivity.

  • To a lot of people wellness might be about achieving something in life. Having short term goals and long term aim keeps you motivated, and achieving that makes you experience an ideal state. The need and goal satisfaction view came from Aristotle’s work, theorizing that reaching a valued goal through hard work leads to subjective well-being. It has to do with basic human motivation – need arises out of hunger. When the hunger is satisfied via some behavior, a feeling of “fullness” is felt.

  • Mental wellness has also been associated with cognition, or thoughts. Aaron Beck (1976) viewed depression to be resulting from a dysfunctional belief system; negative automatic thoughts about self, world, and future. “The world is a bad place”, “I feel inadequate” etc. Seligman (1995) took 70 students who were highly vulnerable to depression and taught them techniques to alter their way of explaining situations. He called it “learned optimism” as this intervention showed a significant decrease in symptoms. Hence, thoughts matter in determining wellness.

  • Engagement in any activity has been known to make one sensitive to the “state of flow”. Artists, dancers, athletes, and people from all walks of life will resonate with this. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) did a seminal work in his books “Deep Work” and “Flow” by highlighting the importance of intrinsically motivated activity characterized by complete absorption in happiness. Flow research suggests that any activity – work, sex, walking, painting, eating, Yoga, massage – can bring you to experience the state of flow when given time and interest.

  • We've always thrived in relationships. Maslow (1943) described “love and belonging” to be an important element in contributing to being a happy individual. It includes friendships, social relationships, romantic attachments, familial bonds etc. Literature on Attachment has brought the focus on the effects of a loving touch, and sensitive attention, in shaping our reaction to stress and exploring the world (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). Carl Rogers (1951) attributed positive regard by the loved ones as the necessary ingredient for growth.

Socialization of Mental Health

There's no single answer to what results in mental well-being. However, decades and even centuries of research have given us many perspectives as to what contributes to it. Factors like wars, social justice, the status of women, minority, natural disasters, race, healthcare, mental health bill, traditions etc have also joined the discourse as they define the quality of life and ultimately, contribute in mental wellness.

Think of it like this; to me, mental wellness is going to a café to write for leisure, having my favourite coffee, having a good time with my friends and family once in a few weeks, hanging out with my boyfriend, gobbling up on Psychology literature, clicking pictures for Instagram, stretching my body as I wake up, and reading Osho, Gilbert, Pema, Tolle, and Thich every once in a while. These are the choices I consistently make as an individual, autonomous entity. They genuinely make me happy in the long run, despite having extremely hard days with each thing. It includes both alone time and intimacy. It includes things I have to do consistently but with a room to grow or explore. So, for me, mental wellness can be,

Familiarity + Spontaneity

Why do I indulge in just these things and not others? I don’t know what led me to my choices, but what is increasingly clear to me is that if I didn’t have money, I wouldn’t really be able to afford any coffee or book. If my life condition didn’t offer me a stable internet connection, I wouldn’t ever have come in contact with my romantic relationship, or good internships. What facilitates my individuality is the presence of social, which can’t be ignored. It’s the privilege we need to acknowledge, as a social realization is needed to ensure that everyone gets the bare minimum to support their health and mind.

Social Context {Familiarity + Spontaneity}

Socialization shapes our individuality in a lot of ways. It determines our life choices, habits, and thoughts. Not only this, it also determines what I think about all these aspects, and my own thoughts. This is called meta-cognition.

Meta-cognition – Thinking about thoughts

While my social context defines where I’m gonna live, how my health is gonna be, what will be the set point of my mental wellness, it also influences me to have opinions and thoughts about all these domains. For instance, “What makes for a good life?” “Is this thought bothering me?” “Do I love my job?” etc. The whole discourse on mental wellness is also a sort of a meta-cognition. The scenario I listed as the ideal, most mentally healthy for me is essentially influenced by the processes of both socialization and meta-cognition.

It’s interesting to wonder what is our culture’s opinion, or meta-cognition about mental wellness. To elaborate even further, depending on the type of social context, there might be things that we need to do, or feel, or think, in order to be mentally fit.


The Meta-cognition of Culture on Mental Wellness

  • “Mental wellness is all about feeling good”

Like we mentioned above, mental wellness is attributed to positive emotions. However, when such a narrative comes from a large living entity of culture, it may lose its nuance.

· Case in point

You’re feeling persistently upset and fatigued. You’ve got all the reasons to be satisfied; a loving family, friendships, stable job, good social media profile, etc. You’re trying to talk to a friend about your situation, but the advice you receive is, “You need to cheer up!”

Culturally, this discourse is not uncommon. Mental wellness doesn’t mean a complete rejection of our profound emotions like sadness, loss, bereavement, rage etc.

· Dispelling the Myth

Choosing positivity also means regarding our difficult emotions with acceptance and space. Such emotions challenge our coping and adjustment; sitting over them with this commandment can paralyze us in the face of emotional storms.

  • “If you’re productive, and focus on your goals & dreams, you’ll feel better about yourself”

This usually comes from well-meaning relatives and family members. It’s true that professional or academic achievement does lead to a better self-esteem, but a lot of complexity is lost if this is the culture’s standard response to somebody struggling.

· Case in Point

Acting giants like Marilyn Monroe and many others “had it all” in terms of professional success and achievement. Their unfortunate demise due to suicide speaks volume about the enormity of the problem.

· Dispelling the Myth

Life outcomes are undoubtedly improved by success but hobbies, passion, or career are just contributors to mental wellness, they’re not causes. People from all walks of life – of different classes, social groups, genders, races etc – can suffer from illness.

  • “Think positive. You must be depressed because you’re too negative.”

Research has suggested that there is a role of belief system in afflictions like depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. However, the negative automatic thoughts are usually out of control. They can happen in a specific context (eg. Stage fright occurs in front of an audience) or can be of a general nature. When the culture’s response to a suffering is that of blame, it’s like telling a tumor patient, “You contributed to having this disease.”

· Case in Point

A 14 year old transferred to a new school is struggling to relate to his peers and feels unmotivated to be interested in academia. He starts to under perform in Math, Science, and Social Science. When he finds the courage to share his problem with his father, the first thing he hears is, “you’re too negative. You’ve got much to be grateful for, you’re wasting all of that.” From that moment onward, he starts to feel terrible guilt for not being cheerful enough, grateful enough, and a disappointment.

· Dispelling the Myth

A constructive belief system takes a lot of practice, support, and professional help. The more you try to be positive when you’re struggling, the harder it becomes for you to face the reality of your situation. Moreover, giving such an advice to the struggling person does not help. It places the burden of guilt upon them, worsening their situation. Whenever you feel the need to say this, just listen. Listening is a skill which can truly help someone in need.

  • “Art saves” “Art heals” “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone” “Travel heals” “True art comes from deep pain”

Relating processes to mental wellness has paved way for an interesting area of research; Flow. Flow is a state of a spontaneous, open absorption. Doing any activity with commitment and awareness sensitizes us to the ever – present joy. However, to rely on such processes during the time of discomfort and pain is putting them on a pedestal.

· Case in Point

Writing makes Naina* feel good, so she starts to pen down her thoughts whenever she’s in a hard place in life. While that makes her have more insight on her own thoughts, she has an unaware expectation that it’ll make her feel good or sane whenever she’s down. When it doesn’t work, her expectations increase. She tries harder to be involved, committed, but she ends up feeling worst about herself.

· Dispelling the Myth

Art, literature, human companionship, human touch, music, dancing etc have the potential to move us and balance us. The approach should be of collaboration with these processes, not reliance on them for a better feeling, or self – image. Areas of Art therapy have emerged to study the outcome of these processes on our wellness, but there it’s a tool for vulnerability rather than reliance.

(*name changed)

  • “A relationship will make you happy” “A relationship will make you miserable” “People who are alone and stay away from toxicity are the strongest” “Loneliness is responsible for you feeling bad about yourself”

There are endless opinions on solitude and social relationships EVERYWHERE; Instagram, self – help groups, or Netflix shows. Health, happiness, and well-being are dependent on the kind of relationships we have around us. Our thoughts and emotions are also associated with the type of relationships we share. Being alone or with somebody has a lot of complexity on the route. Wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum, we’ll encounter disappointments and joys both.

· Case in Point

When Abhishek* was going through a breakup from a long term relationship, his friends threw him a party as he was now free from “all that fuss”. He enjoyed the cheering up and even cussed out his ex-partner. A few months passed. He started to struggle really hard with being uprooted from a long term attachment and no longer found any solace in his new single status. There seemed to be no pride in exploring with other women. He found himself grieving all the time but was shamed by his friends for being weak.

(*name changed)

· Dispelling the Myth

Any relationship, including the one we have with our own selves, is full of challenges and joys of its own. Broadly attributing one aspect of it to eternal happiness or misery is nothing but stereotyping. Relationships are both sacredly safe and immensely turbulence – provoking. Being alone is both mystical and incredibly shaky. Respecting the complexity of someone’s life situation is incredibly important to understand them.

Flip the Script by Listening

The cultural meta-cognition is based on partial truths. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “how is this truth being conveyed?” It matters how we present the truth. It can be yelled with righteousness, or it can be used compassionately to make somebody more vulnerable. Research has given us a lot to consider on what contributes to mental health and wellness. When a suffering is shared or witnessed, the first reaction can be to narrate what we know, give an image of expertise, and efficiently try to put a lid on it. Or, the approach can be to hold this awareness in our hearts that we don’t know, that the only tool we’ve got at our disposal is to listen. Listen, encourage, ask, truly witness it, create a space for it.


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