Mental Fitness

After a 30 day hard reset (also known as sabbatical) I felt like this was an important re-entry topic as I fling myself back into the fray.

Several years ago I got tired of the phrase “Work Life Balance” (and its various permutations – Work/Life Balance and Work-Life Balance.) When Amy and I wrote Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we wrestled a lot with this notion, and the phrase. At the time we didn’t have a better way to phrase it, so “Work Life Balance” persisted throughout the book as we tried to describe and discuss the endless challenges of a partnership as a couple in the context of an entrepreneurial life.

During a talk a year or so ago, I used the word “harmony” instead of “balance.” Within moments I realized that I’d solved a phrasing that had been vexing me for years. We don’t strive for work life balance, as the two never are in balance. Instead, we strive for work life harmony. I’m not very musical, but I know when something sounds in harmony, or harmonious, and suddenly I had a new phrase – “work life harmony” – which now is the way I think of the delicate dance of an entrepreneurial couple (and many other couples), along with many individuals.

Recently, I was having the same problem with the phrase “mental health.” I was being interviewed about depression and talking about how I thought about therapy. I’m a huge fan of therapy, having spent five years in my 20’s with a Harvard-trained, old school psychiatrist and more recently with a Harvard-trained psychologist since my depressive episode in 2013. While they have been very different experiences, they have each been profound for me.

I characterize my therapy sessions a “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I pay the person to listen to me talk about whatever I want to discuss. He (both my therapists have been male) guides me through a deeper exploration of whatever I bring up in various ways. He connects things together over time, bringing up deeper insights. He is patient, doesn’t judge me, is a completely safe place to discuss and explore anything, and customizes what he talks about to what is going on with me in the moment. I ended this section of the interview by saying that my therapist played an analogous role in my life as my long time running coach, but for my mental fitness rather than my physical fitness.

And there it was. I loved the phrase “mental fitness.” Every time I say the phrase “mental health”, I feel like I’m fighting a stigma, explaining something that is probably uncomfortable to many on the receiving end, generating biases, and struggling to explain that working on your mental health is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In contrast, mental fitness is positive, uplifting, and has no stigma associated with it. While I’m sure the phrase “mental health”, like “work life balance”, will regularly sneak into my writing and talking, I’m going to try hard to use “mental fitness” as my default, just like “work life harmony” has become my default. If you look carefully, you’ll even notice that the category on this blog, previously called “Mental Health”, is now called “Mental Fitness.”

Also published on Medium.

  • I’m in favor of any terminology that helps change stigma. Here’s to good mental fitness in the new year.

  • drmarasmith

    I couldn’t agree with you more!! I work with athletes and while they all acknowledge there is an important mental component to their sport (across all sports and abilities) virtually none of them do anything to asses, develop or train this critical side of what they are doing. They understand physical strength and conditioning and the importance of discipline, consistency and effort – so they understand the framework. My work is based on helping them use this framework to build mental fitness through mental strength and conditioning. That way they have a way to activate their minds to optimize their physical endeavors. An athlete would never think they could be their best without training, but we have created a system where only training the body isn’t training the whole athlete. I am using reflection and mobile technology to make this available to all – not just elite athletes and honestly it can be used for anyone who wants to do something better 🙂 I would love to talk to you more about it!

  • Rick Niemeyer

    It’s a very apropos shift in terminology, given the strong connection between physical fitness and mental fitness. A large and growing body of research shows that exercising not only restructures the brain to alleviate depression and anxiety, but can also restructure the brain to compensate for the negative effects of poverty. Great post.

  • you may have had “harmony” slip into your subconscious after a conversation we had 4-5 years ago. I’d attended a Wisdom 2.0 conference in SF wherein one of the speakers spent several minutes talking about how “balance” was the wrong word and instead they’d been pursuing the notion of “harmony.” we were talking about “balance” for obvious reasons :). “harmony” is indeed a much better way to think about it!

    • Definitely possible!

  • Gary

    Hey Brad,
    I don’t know if you’re a Springsteen fan but he just released his autobiography where he talks about, amongst other things, his experience with depression. I like the book a lot.
    I remember seeing a video where a professional cyclist called the person who helped him focus, his mental coach.
    I think development in this area could help humans get much closer to using more of our brains and reaching our potential.

    • I grabbed it – it’s on my Kindle.

  • When it comes to “mental fitness”, choice of language is an interesting and fruitful area to focus your attention. For example, when you think of your work, do the words “fling yourself back into the fray” sound harmonious? Do they conjure the picture you want to experience?

    Meta cognition takes a little extra work. It’s worth it because the words we choose (written and verbal) are a glimpse into the mental state we’re actively creating. It’s instant replay for inner experience.

    • “Fling myself back into the fray” is how I felt this morning. It felt harmonious to me in the context of what the day is going to be like!

  • Andres Faucher

    Great post, indispensable for this to be reaffirmed by you. We live in a culture that idolizes the notion of hard work for its own sake and builds the false equivalence of attributing the amount of time working to the value of the work itself, often at the expense of mental and spiritual reflection, emotional health, physical well being and personal growth. Diet, rest, exercise and mediation are key to making sure that you can do great work.

  • Both phrases are perfect — so much better than their ancestors.

  • Jeff Harbach

    I’m definitely a fan of using “fitness” to describe our quest to learn/grow/improve and be in harmony with other aspects of our life. Not sure if it helped influence you at all, but I always refer to Kauffman Fellows as a “behavioral fitness” program. I would be very happy if in some small way this helped you along your recent path of enlightenment.

  • Love this phrase, thank you Brad! Physical therapy and mental therapy have a lot of similarities and this is an important one; both are extremely helpful (but only part of the equation) for keeping our whole self ‘fit’.

  • Ink361

    Brad, thx for sharing. Dealing with chronic depression myself. Would you be willing to share what you do when dealing with episodes of depression? Did you develop certain habits, besides the hour a week therapy session on running i guess, that help you pull yourself out of the hole once you are in there? thx for sharing in advance. Carel

  • Ben Krempp

    Man, ideas are easy but words are tough. I’m going through the same thing, writing the same stuff over and over again until it gives the right succinct connotation for a broader public audience, versus the initial free flow of thought that may not read well, or clearly, to the majority. It’s amazing how changing one word, some small thing, can move the whole equation to another place. I wish more thinkers out there would describe the evolutionary process, no doubt the toughest, and maybe most interesting, part about writing (or creating anything!), at least to me. It was a fun read Brad, thanks.

  • Thanks Brad, your public exposure of depression and the other stories it has prompted made my own recent bout far more bearable since I was able to at least anticipate it might happen. It also inspired me to write about it tonight, which I hope helps others too.

    • Wow – fantastic, powerful, and extremely vulnerable post. Thanks for putting it out there!

  • Jay Hake

    Hi Brad,

    Thanks so much for your writings and speaking on this topic, I think it has been really helpful to many people. I want to play devil’s advocate for a second and speak out in favor of continuing to call it mental health. I believe the fact that there is a stigma around the words “mental health” is precisely the reason that you should continue to use it. Having people with broad influence speak openly about mental health helps break down that stigma, which is beneficial to many. This is the standard term right now and I think changing it weakens the message. The existence of the stigma, and the uncomfortable aspects of the topic, is precisely the reason why many people who need help don’t get it.

    To me, the term “mental fitness” seems to perpetuate the often-present startup ethos of founders/executives as superheros who aren’t affected by things such as mental health issues, and instead are focusing on maximizing their productivity and intensity so they can continue their efforts with more “fitness”, be it physical or mental.

    While this might be a good message for many, this perception potentially leaves out people who are in a true dark night of the soul and are really looking towards anyone, or anything (however small), that can help to help support them as they pull themselves out. While these people eventually (hopefully) will be focused on mental fitness when their crisis is over, what they need more in their time of crisis is all the support they can get to regain their basic mental health first. Having someone as influential as you speaking openly about the topic, and the stigma around getting help, can only help. Thanks for listening.

    • Good pushback. I will continue to tie mental health issues and mental fitness together. But it has never made sense for me to say “you should work on your mental health” as a proactive activity, but rather “you should work on your mental fitness.” However, one doesn’t have “mental fitness issues”, they have “mental health issues”, so you’ll still see words like mental health, anxiety, and depression show up regularly in my writing.

      • Jay Hake

        Thanks Brad. Regardless of terminology, I appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues openly.

  • DaveJ

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, if reducing stigma makes it easier for people to get help or take action, then that’s great. On the other, I am not a fan of euphemism, because it is often just an attempt to circumvent through language a problem that goes much deeper than language. It’s a lot easier to skip going to the gym for “fitness” than it is to skip going to the doctor when you have a broken leg. Euphemism has a long-term problem as well, in that the new term eventually acquires all the same stigma as the old one.

    I have thought that your efforts to reduce stigma simply by talking openly about these challenges, so that they become more like “I had ACL surgery,” are probably more deeply effective than these sorts of terminological adjustments. But I surely have no data on that.

    Also, it seems like we might want to reserve these positive expressions for circumstances where we are higher on the Maslow hierarchy. If one is depressed, one needs to work on mental health; if one is unsettled or sub-optimally focused, one can work on mental fitness. Similar with balance vs. harmony. You allude to that to some extent in another comment below. It’s hard to know where the line is but there is a difference.

    • Yeah – I’ve gotten this feedback from a few folks. I’m starting to evolve my thinking on this so that I talk about “mental health issues” but work on “mental fitness.” I find it difficult to explain to people that the can “work on their mental health” – it sounds awkward and doesn’t resonate with a lot of people who don’t think they have mental health issues, but could benefit from the mental fitness viewpoint. So – good push back!

      • Most people don’t go to a therapist unless they’re going through some kind of crisis, be it diagnosed depression/anxiety, trauma like death of a family member or divorce, or being the victim of crime. That was certainly the case with me.

        But after doing it off and on for over 20 years, I’ve come to a similar realization as you, Brad. Oftentimes the best way to prevent a crisis is to prepare for it. Understanding how my unconscious beliefs, impulses and biases manifest in everyday life help me to make better decisions.

        It’s almost like getting a periodic mammogram or prostate exam. Most of the time you’re probably fine, but an early diagnosis can make a life-preserving difference down the road.

        I also think untreated mental health is the “dark matter” of some of the larger problems we have in both politics and the economy. Poor and lower income people have less access to mental health services, and perhaps even view them as taboo. As you get older (i.e. into your forties and fifties), the problems you could power through or deny in your twenties and thirties start to have a compounding effect.

        Depression turns into alcoholism, which turns into divorce, which leads to losing your job and severe financial stress. And one day you realize you’re in a seemingly hopeless situation and decide suicide is a rational option.

        I don’t know what the ultimate solution is, but I appreciate your willingness to talk about these kinds of issues. Letting people know they’re not alone is very important.

    • DaveJ

      Don’t neglect the “harmony” / “balance” language either.

      I think most people, when they talk about “work-life balance,” are actually using a euphemism that means they want to work less. It doesn’t sound good to a lot of people that you want to work less. If you have someone who isn’t working enough, you don’t tell them they need to adjust their work-life balance, you tell them they need to put in more hours.

      Work-life harmony is on a completely different level than all this. And maybe that should just be called “Life harmony,” right? If it is harmonious then work is just one of the musical lines, not viewed as separate.

  • Chakameh Shafii

    Thanks for sharing this Brad,

    Finding the right way of emphasizing the importance of mental wellness has always been a struggle for me as well. Discovering the power of therapy is what helped my anxiety and was what I call life changing (the impact was so important that I started a company to provide therapy via video …lessening the stigma).
    Mental health is something we all have, like physical health, but taking care of our mental health is what the stigma is all about. I started using mental wellness but I like mental fitness too. Although I’d agree with some of the previous comments in that mental fitness only gains meaning when we have come out of the dark cycle we were in and now build mental fitness to avoid going back to that period…like building muscles for resilience and strength.

  • Good comment via email:

    From the leadership book “Principles Of Success”

    Your level of self-esteem is really your level of “mental fitness.” It’s a measure of how healthy, hardy, and resilient you are in dealing with the inevitable ups and downs of daily life. Your self-esteem determines how much peace of mind and inner contentment you experience.

    How much you like and respect yourself also determines the quality of your relationships with people. The more you like and enjoy yourself, the more you will like and enjoy others, and the more they will like you. In fact, when your self-esteem is hurt in any way, the very first thing that is affected is the way you get along with people.

  • Lee

    I remember when Brad first started talking about his depression and how wonderful it was for someone with a big following to talk about this openly in a business forum. It’s great to see you how far you are taking this Brad. You inspire me to talk about how I’ve dealt with depression through the years.

  • I like the “work life harmony” phrase because I’d find it impossible to sort what we’d call my work from what we’d call my life. I’ve allowed my work to become so all-consuming because it brings me genuine pleasure, which is good for my mental fitness. And that only sounds like a flippant remark. It’s not.

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