In all the talk about complex mental illness and heated social issues, the basics often get ignored. At an individual level, there are things that constitute the bare minimum if you are to be mentally healthy. Broadly, these bare essentials can be categorized as physical, emotional, social, intellectual and philosophical/existential.
Physical bare minimum
All of us know the bare necessities in the physical department. But, thanks to the fast-paced, on-the-go lifestyle that most of us lead, we feel we don’t have time for physical needs. Nutrition magazines are to blame for the terror around healthy eating. However, when it comes down to it, checking off the bare essentials doesn’t actually take much time. You can make a big nutrition-rich meal that would last 3 days in the fridge. For breakfast, you can eat out of that every 3 days. At work, it won’t be possible to watch what you’re eating that closely, so it’s probably best to take it easy. It might even help to skip the mid-day meal and just snack on more fruits (or if you have to, then, some junk food). After getting home from work, since it would be nearly time for bed, the recommendation would be to stay light. Leave the heavy meals for breakfast. At night, some combination of fruits, nuts and milk should do the trick. For any vitamins you may not be getting from your diet, it would help to take a multivitamin supplement with breakfast. Finally, drink at least 3-4 litres of water everyday. If you can’t afford to pee too much during work, then divide the water intake between mornings and nights.
Again, the crazy pace of modern living is a big factor when it comes to sleep. The thought of sleeping by 9 pm after putting in a hard day of work is depressing to say the least. It’s like there’s no time for fun and relaxation. If you are one of those people who can fall asleep by 11-12 pm and wake up in time for work on the weekdays, and then sleep more during the weekends, then you are all set. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who have way too much on their minds, then medication may be the best option. I take medication for my own sleep since I can’t get my mind to relax at the end of a big day. I can tell you for a fact that my mood and energy levels have been much better for it. We tend to think that resorting to medication is a bad thing. But, in the end, you do what you have to do. Plus, not sleeping well at night for fear of taking medication would, by far, be the worse outcome.
This one is the most challenging part in the physical aspect of mental well-being. There are many options for exercise. The idea is to keep your brain, heart and lungs functioning optimally. The trick is to find an exercise that slightly elevates your heartrate. For me, that’s about 30 push ups. Once your heartrate is slightly elevated, keep it there for about 15-20 minutes. You’ll work up a good sweat, burn a lot of calories, and keep your metabolism high for the next several hours. Eventually, you will get used to the heartrate elevating activity. At that point, it won’t elevate your heartrate anymore. In that case, push a little further. For instance, when I get used to 30 push ups, I’ll push to about 40 or 45 in order to get my heartrate up. In general the idea is to crank it up a notch (not too much. You should be able to talk, but not sing) and keep it there for about 20-30 minutes. The other thing to consider is sitting. Yes, sitting actually counteracts exercise. In that regard, standing desks at work are a great option. You can start with both a standing desk and a sitting desk if you can’t stand too long, and eventually work up to standing more than you sit.
Emotional bare minimum
You can’t decide what emotions to feel. Emotions are subconscious, not conscious. Therefore, the emotional bare minimum for mental health comes down to skillful management of emotions rather than fussing about the very existence of emotions. Some practical emotion management techniques are as follows:
We have all heard of “channeling energy into something productive.” That’s basically what sublimation is. If you’re angry at someone and you can’t show it, then take it out by dominating a difficult task that needs to get done. If you are lonely and can’t help it, then take it out by achieving something that draws people to you. Broadly, the goals of sublimation are to satisfy the immediate need through some other, less destructive/damaging and more productive means.
Similar to sublimation, redirection is also about finding an alternate channel for your emotions. The difference is that it stays true to the original form of the emotion. In crude terms, it’s less “graceful” than sublimation. For example, when you are angry, you don’t transfer the anger from an itch to beat someone up into a task that needs to get done. Instead, you just beat a punching bag up. The instinct to beat on something remains. Therefore, the original form of the anger is better preserved.
Catharsis is basically cleansing. It involves drama. You cry, you claw, you confront, you yell, you break stuff. So on and so forth. You do whatever you need to do to let it all out. The more drama, the better. Catharsis is the preferred emotion management technique if you have the space and the luxury. It’s usually done in a therapist’s office.
This one is about sucking it up because there is no other way. For some emotions, this is the only solution. For example, if you feel strongly about long work hours, then there’s nothing to be done about it. You just suck it up and work for those long hours, if you intend to make a good living.
Social bare minimum
This amounts to 3 main considerations:
- Being a “good” person which is covered in this post.
- Learning new and necessary skills, which would allow you to perform to your satisfaction, which would, in turn, minimize envy.
- Finding people who don’t stress you out to keep you company.
Intellectual bare minimum
There are several aspects in intellectual development — problem solving, working memory, concept abstraction, spontaneous thinking and solution-focused thinking would be the most important ones.
Problem solving comes from solving different kinds of problems. Reading an instruction manual that you would normally watch a youtube video for, for instance. Or, trying to win at a slightly more complex game than the one you are used to. So on and so forth. Push your boundaries. Limit it to one boundary-pushing task every evening or every other evening to keep it manageable. Also, do it privately to prevent self-image issues.
Working memory means being able to track multiple information channels vividly and clearly as you proceed through the task. Chess players for instance are able to play out multiple action-sequences every time a move is made. That shows a strong working memory. You don’t have to be a master chess player, but you get the idea. The best way to develop a working memory is to practice.
Concept abstraction is hard to define. It is the skill that tells you multiplication and division are conceptually related. Or that mathematics and physics are similarly related. So on so forth. Someone with strong concept abstraction is able to derive the core concept from a task such that they see connections that others normally miss. The way to develop concept abstraction is to always think of what is not along with what is. For example, if its recognizing a good song, don’t just go over things you like about the song, but also go over things that you don’t like about other songs.
Spontaneous thinking is thinking on your feet. Lawyers are a good example. Everyone would be a great lawyer if they had the time to come back home, spend 4 hours, and poke holes in the opposition’s statements. But doing that, as one is talking, on a dialogue-to-dialogue basis, is where it gets challenging. Developing spontaneous thinking is a simple matter of not retreating to a comfort zone to think and reducing the total time taken to think.
Solution-focused thinking is another hard term to define. It’s the kind of intelligence that told Elon Musk to keep at it at a time when everyone was ridiculing the idea of fully electric cars. Or, the kind that told Alan Turing to stay focused on deciphering German messages at a time when it was considered impossible to do so. In the end, solution-focused thinking is about patience, hope and active persistence. It is a rather important component of essential intellectual functioning. It’s easier if you are generally content otherwise — physically, emotionally, socially etc.
Philosophical/existential bare minimum
This aspect involves grappling with overarching themes in life. Things like:
- What is the meaning of life?
- What is my legacy?
- Have a lived a good life?
- Do I have many regrets?
- Do I have memories to look back to when I’m older?
- Have I made a difference in the world?
I could go on, but you get the idea. These questions have no objective answers. Each person’s journey through these questions is deeply personal. In the end, the goal would be to make the journey your own. What that means is if someone else were put in your place, then they shouldn’t be able to create the same stories that you did.
That’s it. Thank you for reading.
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