Agency & Gratitude: Building Blocks of Mental Health

By examining the physical parallels of mental health, we uncover the essential building blocks for psychological well-being and the transformative power of understanding the self.

Join us as we navigate the journey towards fostering a robust psychological framework, where agency and gratitude emerge as pivotal markers of a healthy and fulfilling existence.

Defining Mental Health

People are generally considered physically healthy if they can perform basic tasks without exhaustion or injury and perhaps have additional strength or endurance.

While these physical standards are somewhat clear, the concept of mental health remains abstract for many people.

He recognizes a common struggle in discerning if we are truly the best versions of ourselves or if our perspectives are aligned with what is beneficial for us.

What constitutes a healthy self is the core question posed to Dr. Conti, who has had experience with both mentally robust individuals and those suffering from severe psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar, narcissistic, or sociopathic conditions.

Dr. Conti postulates that a healthy self is one that perceives life through the lenses of agency and gratitude. Happy individuals, regardless of their life stage, wealth, race, or religion, exhibit these traits.

The factors that genuinely influence someone’s satisfaction with life and willingness to take care of themselves are grounded in their sense of control over life events (agency) and their appreciation for life’s experiences (gratitude).

Dr. Conti emphasizes that it is rare to see a person who has both characteristics veer off course, even in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.

Instead of diminishing their zest for life, agency and gratitude reinforce an individual’s engagement with the world, regardless of external hardships.

Throughout history, whether in psychiatry, literature, or religion, the markers of a contented life have consistently been agency and gratitude. People who approach life with these attributes generally find a deep sense of purpose and contentment.

Agency and Gratitude as Mental Health Indicators

According to neuroscience gratitude practices can lead to significant neurochemical changes in the brain, promoting mental health.

But these discussions only begin to scratch the surface. Agency and gratitude are, in essence, the ultimate rewards derived from a healthy psychological framework.

A robust structure of the self – inclusive of one’s identity and ability to navigate the world – fosters empowerment.

This empowerment is the basis for agency, as one can only truly influence their surroundings when they possess the capacity to act effectively. Meanwhile, a clear understanding of our role in the larger ecosystem of life cultivates humility.

Humility, in turn, lays the groundwork for gratitude, acknowledging that our fortune to act and influence comes with a responsibility to the greater good.

Thus, a well-structured and functioning self naturally leads to a life defined by empowerment and humility, out of which agency and gratitude emerge.

These qualities, much like the desired physical health markers such as low blood pressure or heart rate, are key indicators of well-being.

Just as these physical attributes enable us to move through the world with ease and capability, having agency and gratitude allows for a more effective and happier life journey.

However, the roadmap to cultivating these attributes remains less transparent compared to physical health.

While we understand how to build endurance or strength through exercise, creating a sense of agency and gratitude through empowerment and humility requires more nuanced steps.

Physical Health & Mental Health Parallels

The essence of fostering these psychological qualities rests in developing a thorough understanding of the self.

This comprehension is akin to knowing how our bodies function to maintain physical health. In the same fashion that cardiovascular health, muscle strength, and a balanced diet are building blocks for good physical health, agency and gratitude act as foundational elements for psychological well-being.

Empowerment and humility are the outcomes of a self-aware and self-caring mind.

We have amassed enough scientific knowledge through neurobiology and psychiatry to understand the structure of the self — and consequently, its function. Yet, there’s a disparity between how we approach physical health versus mental health.

Often, mental health is looked at through the lens of what’s wrong or what’s lacking instead of what constitutes a ‘happy’ or ‘healthy’ psychological state.

It is crucial to study the underlying mechanics of mental health just as we scrutinize vital signs or muscular strength in physical health. This analysis helps us to create personalized ‘mental workouts’ to strengthen our psychological selves.

Drawing parallels from the world of physical fitness, Dr. Andy Galpin pointed out that, despite the countless variations of exercise routines, the body can only undergo a handful of core adaptations.

These adaptations result in enhanced health markers like lower blood pressure, better endurance, or improved brain function.

Similarly, in constructing a robust psychological self, there seems to be a set of fundamental practices that lead to an overall healthier mindset.

The Nature of Self-Improvement: Agency & Gratitude

Huberman notes that while behavioral changes, such as losing weight or seeking a romantic partner by expanding social interactions, might yield results, these actions barely scratch the surface of the psychological depth that needs addressing to sustain and fully realize those changes.

For instance, Huberman’s friend successfully lost weight but continues to live with the fear of regaining it, a fear which, while not impairing his weight maintenance, severely affects his enjoyment of life and productivity.

This example transcends the superficiality of behavior modification and emphasizes the importance of delving into one’s psyche to uncover and address the salience and defense mechanisms that dictate our feelings and actions.

The inner workings of the mind split into two pillars: the structure of the self and the function of the self.

These two pillars contribute to our empowerment and humility, and ultimately to our capacity for agency and gratitude.

It is the interplay between these elements that informs our ability to live a balanced and happy life.

When it comes to the structure of the self, we delve into the unconscious mind, acknowledging its orchestration of the myriad processes we are not consciously aware of yet can explore.

We consider our character structure, how we interface with the world, and how we experience our own sense of self.

The function of the self involves self-awareness, understanding our defense mechanisms, what we deem important, our behaviors, and our aspirations.

It’s a comprehensive look at the mind’s operation and its influence on our day-to-day life.

Huberman and his guest highlight the transformative power of inquiry. By understanding oneself and rooting for goodness, one embarks on a continuous process of self-discovery and improvement.

The appreciation of complexity therein breeds respect for the self and others, fostering humility. This humility complements the empowerment derived from self-knowledge, facilitating a life marked by agency—the active projection of oneself into the world, making considered decisions and anticipating the future.

Gratitude is equally dynamic.

An active form of gratitude acknowledges the wonder of existence and inspires compassionate interactions.

Agency and gratitude, when adopted, guide one towards a simpler, more profound pursuit of happiness defined by contentment, peace, and the capacity for delight.

While happiness can at times be elusive or fleeting, it is interwoven with a generative drive to improve, understand, and propel life forward.

The dialogue concludes with an affirmation that neither peace nor happiness is a permanent state of being but an active engagement with life.

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Dr. Paul Conti

Paul Conti, M.D., is a Stanford and Harvard-trained psychiatrist currently running a clinical practice, the Pacific Premier Group.

Andrew Huberman:

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