Continuing with the series I started a couple of days ago; another aspect of mental health that I believe to be very important is the topic of morality. Now, morality gets almost no mention whatsoever in psychology textbooks and again I’m highly suspicious of this. The suggestion here is that morality is somehow outside the purview of psychology, however, I would argue that morality, or its lack, is actually at the heart of a lot of what we call mental illness. Consider how many times you hear about criminals pleading insanity in court to justify their crimes. Psychologists are often brought in as expert witnesses to give weight to such claims. Yet, why the lack of mainstream academic discussion among psychologists about morality and it’s relationship to mental health?
The first issue is of course defining what morality is. In the simplest sense, morality is about doing the right thing based on a set of rules. There are two major competing schools of thought about what rules count as moral: one that is very popular in academic writing and trendy social circles, and the other which is considered by many to be old fashioned, out of date, and ridiculous. The popular definition is that morality is socially defined, it is a set of rules that have no objective basis to them, they are just adhered to by people because of traditional and political authority. This is subjective morality, while the supposedly out dated version of morality is called objective morality and the argument here is that morals are not mere popular whims, but come from reason and are universal.
One of the infuriating things about cracking open most authorised textbooks on psychology is that they are preoccupied with defining abnormal psychology: narcissism, sociopathy, depression, anxiety, borderline, bi-polar, dissociative personality disorder, and so on. An endless litany of things that could be wrong with someone. Curiously they don’t often, if ever, make positive claims as to what mental health is. What is a mentally healthy person? How does a mentally healthy person behave? The reasons for this are fun to speculate: maybe they don’t know, or maybe the mental health profession is full of narcissistic, autistic, and other abnormal people and so they can’t describe mental health themselves, or maybe human nature is so varied there isn’t truly a healthy condition, just lots of shades of mental grey?
So, I’m going to make sure to write about the few things which I’m confident fall in the category of mentally healthy processes and behaviours. Today, I want to write about trust, and hopefully illustrate why being able to trust is an essential component of overall mental health.
Trust is a complex subject because it isn’t only a philosophical concept, it is actually also a feeling mediated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Because of this trust is not a simple concept to nail down, but for this article let’s keep it simple: trustworthiness is the quality of a person/animal/thing to display consistently beneficial behaviours, and therefore “to trust” refers the capacity to bond with a trustworthy person/animal/thing. Johnathon is trustworthy when it comes to turning up to work on time, being non-violent, and moderating his alcohol consumption, but don’t leave money lying about in view because Johnathon is notorious for pinching every unattended penny he lays eyes on. Mary is trustworthy when it comes to money, but is almost never at work on time, and should not be trusted when drinking with young men. Johnathon trusts Mary with his wallet and is not disappointed, but when Mary trusts Johnathon with her purse, she’s a few dollars less wealthy than before.
One of the surest ways to start a conflict with someone is to start talking about politics with them. Taxation, state secrecy, police powers, welfare, immigration, traffic laws, healthcare, voting rights, industry regulations, minimum wage, tariffs, separation of Church and state, etc… these are all wonderful topics that can ruin a friendship in just one night. Yet why do political conversations seem to raise the stakes so high that even good friends can become bitter rivals? What is it about politics that makes it only a safe topic to talk about if two people share exactly the same political views as each other?
Well, I could do a well researched piece into this and talk about the neuroscience, but I’m eager to simply finish my blog entry to watch some TV so instead, I’m going to write about something I remember hearing on the History of England Podcast where the people were arguing with the kings repeatedly over the issue of the laws always changing. This struck me as odd because I’ve always lived in an era when the laws seem to be changing all the time. It never occurred to me that there might have been a time, indeed centuries, where the laws hardly changed at all, and that these state of affairs was seen as the ideal.
It’s a new year, and with all these jokes about having 2020 vision I find myself thinking about how I would benefit from working on my own vision for 2020. Not that I need glasses, well, not yet at least, but I mean working on my mental 2020 vision, or more commonly called empathy. Empathy is a complex set of skills and abilities allowing a person to make accurate guesses about what other people know, don’t know, desire, loathe, and how they’re likely to react to specific news. Generally speaking, people are not bad at empathy, however, considering just how mentally taxing empathy can be, it is commonplace that we get things wrong when attempting to understand how other people think.
One thing I used to get wrong was that I used to assume everyone valued honesty as much I do. It seemed rather ridiculous to me that anyone would lie. Certainly, lie to teachers and bullies if you must, but why on Earth to anyone you work with, want to be friends with, or live with? I mean, it just never made good sense to me. If you want to get along with people, to live and work co-operatively together, then you should just tell the truth to each other. That way you can both plan your days, and indeed even your lives, to be as productive and stress free as possible. But as soon as someone starts lying or withholding information it becomes difficult, nigh impossible to plan even your day, much less your life with other people. With the wrong information, you will inevitably make the wrong decisions no matter how well organised you are.
But was it their failure to be honest or my failure to understand why they preferred to lie? Was I not standing in their proverbial shoes for sufficient mileage to appreciate where they were coming from?