Some people watch what they eat, but how many are careful about how they nourish their minds?
It’s on the Label
In the United States, arguably the epicenter of the obesity epidemic, nearly all packaged food is labeled with nutrition information, listing ingredients and specific amounts of various nutrients such as protein, fat, sugar, and various vitamins. While not everyone takes advantage of these labels, one could construct a diet that would help keep one healthy and trim well into old age.
Recommended Daily Allowance
The art and science of good nutrition is in matching up food with well-defined human needs for the various nutrients. While experts may quibble about specific vitamin levels, there is strong agreement on basic parameters of healthy nutrition, such as the total number of calories needed to sustain a person of a certain weight at a certain energy level, and which fats promote heart disease. In the US, we’ve even given basic nutritional needs a name: “Recommended Daily Allowance” (RDA), or more currently, “Recommended Daily Intake” (RDI).
Missing out on one or more essential nutrients over the long run leads to disorders and disability. Most people are familiar with scurvy and its cause: a vitamin C deficiency. More recently, folic acid deficiency has come to popular attention for its association with neural tube birth defects. The deeper we look at nutrition, the more symptoms and syndromes we seem to link with different nutritional deficiencies.
Feed Your Head
Whether we heed nutritionists’ advice or ignore it, the fact that nutrition greatly affects health and wellbeing is not up for debate. I am puzzled as to why we don’t draw similar conclusions about mental health. I’m not speaking of the effects of physical nutrients on mental health (although that is a worthy topic in its own right) but the effects of particular experiences, thoughts and emotions on mental health.
And whereas we have a guide in the form of the RDA to enumerate all the essential nutrients and set a minimum level for each of them, we lack a guide as to what sorts of mental nourishment are essential, and how much we need of each one. In a moment, I’ll do my best to remedy this.
There also seem to be a couple of attitudes that get in the way of creating and accepting an “RDA for mental health.” The first obstacle is the idea that mentally nourishing experiences and states of mind are optional, in a way that we rarely attribute to physical nutrition. While we may chide one another for over-indulging in sugary sodas or failing to eat vegetables, if we’re overcome by stress or fatigue, the common sense remedies of rest and relaxation somehow seem less important.
A second attitude that interferes with the “RDA for the mind” metaphor is the concept that poor care for our minds can be overcome by force of will alone. While people of both sexes subscribe to this mindset, there is a distinct macho element of this belief, most famously captured by the motto “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Unfortunately, while this might actually work in the short-term, willpower is a limited commodity, and ironically enough, weakened by a lack of self-care, both physical and mental. In the long run, it is more correct to say that good self-care increases willlpower than to say that willpower can cover for a lack of self-care.
So, supposing you reject the idea that taking care of your psychological health is any more optional than taking care of your physical health, and furthermore that it’s a weakness to fail to care for yourself, not some mark of machismo, then what are the minimum daily requirements for good mental health?
Safety: More is Better, Ideally All the Time
Human beings have two waking modes of existence: one is the normal, relaxed, thoughtful way we’d like to go about our business. The other is the stressed, panicked, enraged or terrified state we enter when under threat. The cruel hand of natural selection has gifted all surviving human beings with the ability to cope with extreme danger and stress using the “fight or flight” mechanism, but only for a limited time. Sadly, when a threat (perceived or actual) sticks around for more than a few minutes, our bodies and minds start to break down under the unrelenting demand. Safety is, at a minimum, the absence of immediate threat that allows us to turn off our fight-or-flight systems long enough to rest and recover.
Socialization: Some Combination of Family, Friends, and Romantic Partners
Another one of those macho ideals is the idea of the loner who can do everything by himself. The truth is that most people do badly when isolated from supportive people in their lives. Depending on our circumstances, that support could come from our parents, our peer group, our community, our romantic partner, or our children.
Sleep: Seven to Nine Hours of Sleep per Night (for Adults)
Here’s a nutrient for both body and mind. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting even the minimum amount of sleep needed for health. In fact the CDC calls insufficient sleep a “Public Health Epidemic.” In addition to the obvious lethargy and mental fogginess sleeplessness brings, lack of sleep also weakens memory, decreases immune function and can even raise blood pressure.
Play: Daily; Especially Critical During Childhood
Child development experts know that play is serious work. Children learn as much, if not more, from unstructured play than they do in their lessons. Lack of play is associated with poor social and intellectual development in later life. And while the research may not be as definitive on play during later life, anecdotally, play seems to boost creativity and cut stress for most people.
Meaning: Constantly Developed and Renewed
Life can be confusing and discouraging at times. Meaning is the compass that allows people to navigate ambiguity and obstacles over decades. Without an overarching meaning or purpose, it is easy to give in to depression or nihilism. While some will throw in with common causes, purpose, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, as people reach their goals or move from one stage of life to another, meaning and purpose may need to be reevaluated and revised.
Challenge: Matched to Current Ability Levels
The mind is like muscle, we are told. And like a muscle, it can grow weak without appropriate exercise. While the jury is still out on the latest crop of brain games, it is known that reading for pleasure and using two or more languages over the years delays senility.
Beyond just staving off senility, an appropriate level of challenge, one that’s not too difficult and not to easy, is also associated with the pleasurable sense of being “in the zone” or “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Being challenged at just the right level is also essential for learning and developing skills.