PRACTISING WELL HOW OUR MIND SETS CAN AFFECT OUR MENTAL HEALTH*

by: HUGH NORRISS**

MENTAL HEALTH IS NOT JUST about identifying illness and seeking treatment. It is also about our capacity for being mentally healthy - having optimal mental health, enjoying life, feeling vitality and contributing positively in our relationships and to society.

Good mental health is not just the absence of mental illness, and being mentally healthy can build protective factors that reduce our risk of mental and physical illness.

Collectively in a population, good mental health is known as mental capital, and it is undoubtedly one of the most important assets of a postindustrial society. This was confirmed by the Foresight Project 2008 report for the United Kingdom Government Office for Science.

This wide-reaching study into mental capital and wellbeing looked at how a person’s mental resources change through life, as a child, adult and in old age, and identified factors that can help or hinder their development (www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/mental-capitaland-wellbeing, retrieved 25-4-2013).

One of the areas highlighted in this project, that increases mental capital, is having an open mind and continuing to learn. Learning, goal setting and goal directed behaviour for children and adults are widely shown to be of benefit to our psychological health.

It’s fairly obvious why lifelong learning is more likely to be better for our overall mental health and provide other advantages such as being more resourceful. Yet many of us will have tendencies towards mind sets that hinder our true capacity to grow. Part of this may be due to socialisation.

Consider, for instance, the insatiable curiosity and wonder at every new thing expressed by a child, compared with the rigid views and preferences we often end up with as adults.

Two types of mind sets that reduce the flexibility of our brain functions, encourage negative emotions and are associated with poorer mental wellbeing are the fixed mind set and perfectionism. Their wellbeing enhancing alternatives are growth mind sets, and optimalism.

Fixed vs Growth Mind Sets

Dr Carol Dweck, a professor from Stanford University, has been studying fixed versus growth mind sets for several decades, and has summarized the research and conclusions in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). Dweck states that our mind set will determine much of what we think of as our personality.

In her research with children, Dweck found that those who didn’t do well and thought that their abilities were fixed, gave up.

Those who were consistently praised as high achievers tended to think that this characteristic was innate, and therefore reduced their effort to learn. They were even much more likely to cheat in tests to ensure that their label was kept intact, and felt constant pressure to “win”. The dynamic of being seen as naturally talented encouraged anxiety and stress, and undermined the joy of learning.

On the other hand, children who were praised for the effort they put into learning fared much better in terms of their general wellbeing and longer-term success. Adults show similar characteristics.

Those who believe that abilities are fixed (even high achievers) tend to be anxious about trying new things, shun learning from others, and are terrified of failure. Growth mind set adults don’t like failure but they know they will learn from it, and they enjoy growing and learning as a process, as much as the end goal outcome.

A summary of the fixed mind set vs growth set behaviours is shown in the table below

Source: Ben Shahar, T. The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, 2009.

Perfectionism v Optimalism

Many professions, including law, obviously require a high degree of diligence and accuracy. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.

However perfectionism as a way of life can be damaging to mental health according to Harvard psychologist and professor Tal Ben Shahar in his book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

Essentially it is a critique of all or nothing thinking that translates as:

“if I am not perfect, then I must be a failure”. This fear of failure, whether consciously acknowledged or not, sets off the brain’s fear response, leading to fight or flight type behaviours and, over time, chronic stress and anxiety.

Ben Shahar instead proposes “optimalism” as a more effective wellbeing alternative.

Both Dweck and Ben Shahar do not paint their alternative mind sets as off/on behaviours, but rather tendencies along a continuum. Although perfectionism and a fixed approach will sometimes be the best approach to a life situation, in general moving towards the optimalist and growth mind set end of the spectrum will lead to improved psychological health. Both books refer to the evidence-based behaviours and thinking habits that can be adopted in daily life and support more mentally healthy mind sets.

Ongoing research from psychologist Todd Kashdan and his colleagues suggests that one of the more effective ways of building more open and accepting ways of thinking, and to be an all round better person is to cultivate a lifelong attitude of curiosity.

This includes being open to new experiences, finding the novelty in everyday life, and exploring and discovering - even if this takes us outside of our comfort zone. The research and practical suggestions supporting curiosity as an effective wellbeing strategy are outlined in Kashdan’s 2009 book simply titled Curious?

The trait of curiosity is often noted in lawyers (at least in my experience) and it may be a particularly effective psychological asset that can go some way towards offsetting other more negative and stressful psychological aspects of the profession.

Source: Dweck. C, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006.


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* Published with kind permission of Law Talk, Law Society of New Zealand.

**Hugh Norriss is the Director of Policy and Development at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and also the Director of Working Well. Working Well is the Mental Health Foundation’s programme to support workplaces to be mentally healthy. Before joining the Mental Health Foundation in 2009, he has held a range of leadership positions in mental health services, including Group Manager of Mental Health Services and Mental Health Planning and Funding Manager at Capital Coast Health 2005-2009 and Chief Executive of Wellink Trust, 1997-2005. Having worked in mental health services for 12 years, Mr Norriss joined the Mental Health Foundation to pursue public policy and information work in advocating for better ways to protect and promote the mental health of all New Zealanders, including in the workplace.