On mental fitness vs mental health

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 10, 2022

I really enjoyed John’s suggestion that the idea of mental health (=absence of mental illness) might not be as helpful as the idea of mental fitness (=something that requires sustained effort, and is hardly ever fully reached). I wonder, though, whether it might be a double edged sword.

The idea that attending to our mental well being is hard work is certainly something that deserves centre stage – both to get rid of the dangerous idea that it can be dealt with via a quick fix (be it a pill or a self-contained package of therapy sessions); and to acknowledge that, for those who struggle with it, it is something that requires ongoing and complicated labour. It most often involves false starts, dead ends, set backs, ups and and downs, and long phases where a lot of effort only produces incremental results.

On the other hand, though, the idea of mental well being as a state of fitness that requires sustained effort also suggests – much like the analogy with physical fitness which John himself makes – the idea of something which is in our hands if only we put in the work. In other words, it might put more emphasis on individual, atomised responsibility. Don’t be lazy: chuck the junk food; go for a run; do what you need to reach mental fitness.

This logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is the last thing that people who struggle with their mental well being need; yet, the idea of mental fitness rather than health is a powerful one. Is there a way of embracing it without sliding into this logic? Which kind of moves would that involve? What would we need to pay attention to? Interested in reading any thoughts on this.




BenK 08.10.22 at 2:56 pm

This is an easy one to solve.

Mental Fitness + Mental Injury + Mental/Psychological Infectious Disease + Emotional Disability + Cognitive Disability + Developmental Disability should cover much of the ‘mental health’ space.


MisterMr 08.10.22 at 5:54 pm

The main problem with the concept of “mental fitness” as opposed to “mental hygiene”, as noted by some in the other thread, is that this implies an optimal state of mind that is difficult do define.

For example, in regard to physical fitness, the level of muscliness that is ideal for a “fit” male is heavily dependent on cultural prejudices, so that some people who go heavy on bodybuilding might actually do stuff that is bad for their own fitness, or there is the question of what is the optimal level of body fat, and finally there are some people who are obsessed by physical fitness to a point that other might believe is a fixation.

If we switch to the “mental” part of the equation, there is the question of, for example, whether there are really optimal levels of optimism, extroversion etc., or if trying to reach these standards is really a fixation and a problem in itself.


hix 08.10.22 at 6:31 pm

Getting people to take the goddamn pill (or try another one if the first fails) is in my experience a much bigger problem than anybody hopeing that just takeing the pill will do it. Maybe this is different say in the US with strange adds bombarding the population.


Trader Joe 08.11.22 at 11:26 am

I think the OP is correct that for some proportion of people the notion of “mental fitness” isn’t going to really work.

I think of it as a skewed bell curve – there is some proportion of people who largely have solid mental health, but can benefit from a regular regime of reminding themselves about how to cope with and/or manage daily stressors and similarly from time to time will benefit from using those techniques (and maybe others) to cope with more complex life setbacks such death of loved ones, job loss etc. Even generally positive life events like a graduation or a marriage can produce stress or anxiety that can be profitably managed with a mental fitness model.

I have no idea what proportion of people fit this category but in my own anecdotal experience its probably around 2/3 to 3/4 that can largely self-regulate and can benefit from a mental fitness model, but that figure could be way wrong. No doubt there is a study somewhere that thinks it has the answer. Physical fitness is much the same – some portion can ‘just do it’ on their own where others won’t do it without a professional trainer, a dietician or maybe a medical procedure or medication.

For the remaining 1/3 to 1/4 they are facing something that is going to require some assistance from a professional. That might be counseling to learn to manage a specific situation or incident. It might mean group sessions. It might mean medication. Only someone with some skill to unpack the situation can really make the call – the person experiencing the challenge could in fact be the worst person to make the call (despite what most people believe about the importance of personal autonomy).

As an example, take alcoholism or drug dependence. Sometimes these are just what they seem to be – a person who can’t control their use of a substance to their detriment. In other cases, maybe many cases, there are actually other issues at play and the drug or alcohol use became the crutch to deal with those issues until the crutch itself became as bad or worse than the original problem.

Simple ‘mental fitness’ might address the alcoholism (a 12 step is good example) but may do nothing to combat the underlying issue which can draw from the full range of human suffering.

Appreciate the topic being extended.


Moz 08.12.22 at 9:12 am

“mental fitness” can also be useful as feeding into the idea that you can learn about it, and there are a bunch of techniques for getting better at it that are well known and helpful. It’s not just putting in the time/effort, it’s doing something useful with the time you spend.

There’s also a minor terminology issue because “mental fitness” terms too easily cross over with intellectual fitness. If you talk about “mental exercise” or “mental workout” people will more likely think of a crossword or quiz, rather than working on being emotionally available to a friend. I’m thinking “boost your EQ” type things rather than “boost your IQ”.

I suspect that even today mental fitness and emotional awareness in general are not well taught and bad habits are often not especially obvious the way being morbidly obese or cripplingly lazy are. Modern parents are well aware that children need to move if they’re to thrive, but “how do you feel” isn’t given the same attention. OTOH the excitement about autism suggests that we’re getting better at detecting people with low EQs, and likely also better at detecting emotionally abusive parents.


John Quiggin 08.12.22 at 9:25 am

As I tried to suggest in the OP, there’s a public health element to both physical and mental health and fitness. For example it’s a lot more difficult to maintain good physical health if you don’t have access to affordable and nutritious food. And as I said a lot more difficult to maintain good mental health in the world as it is now than it was at sometimes in the past.

Dealing with the situation we face, we should try to improve the state of society but we also need to look after ourselves. So we should do what we can to remain physically and mentally fit, without making harsh judgements of those who find it too difficult.


David in Tokyo 08.12.22 at 2:20 pm

I think John’s point that maintaining physical and mental health being difficult in difficult times is well taken. I didn’t really intend to be the voice of the anti-psychiatry movement here, but my reading of the science* is that those guys are basically right. Another thing they rant about (and sound correct on to me) is that a lot of “mental illness” is due to economic hardship, and a better job and some kind advice or encouragement would be a lot better than powerful neuro-active drugs such as the ones that make drowning rats struggle longer.

*: Watch this space: I just blew some serious money** on the latest neuroscience undergrad textbook to make sure I haven’t missed anything important over the years. Or don’t watch: my SO is betting I don’t get very far through it.

**: Worse than the money was the trees that died to create that much paper. Sheesh. I do a lot of my reading nowadays on the Kindle, but some stuff works better on paper.


a different guy named kent 08.12.22 at 6:04 pm

I want to disagree with the conclusion. I think that the logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is in fact very helpful for (at least many of the) people who struggle with mental health. Learning that there are specific things that I can do — things that nobody else can do for me — but which can and do help my own mental health, has been a godsend to me in my own struggles. “This is a problem and I have the ability to handle it.” It was precisely my belief that I did NOT have the ability to cope with my mental health problems that made them intractable.

I’m working very hard to attain a state of mental health that will allow me to share the details of my approach with the world. Someday I will get there. Wish me luck. Until then I’m staying pretty much anonymous, hence the fake email address. Sorry about that one.


Johnny Logic 08.13.22 at 12:07 am

Perhaps some tension may be resolved by thinking in detail about health as the state of being free from disease and being generally capable, and fitness being the state of excelling for some purpose (sometimes a perfection of an aspect of health, sometimes a particular more particular pursuit).

To zoom in, you are physically healthy when you are free from disease, but this does not necessarily make you fit for endurance running or powerlifting, etc. You also may be fit (in some sporting or aesthetic sense) but not healthy, as various athletes have sadly demonstrated through the years. Like being healthy, being fit is also only partially under individual control– various genetic and environmental (including social) factors are very real. I can’t very well be a great swimmer without a long torso, long arms, access to a pool, coaching, etc. no matter how hard I try by myself.

Both health and fitness are arguably prudential norms, meaning they are good for something, but they differ in important ways. The aim of health is fairly uniform (if under various understandings historically) in being for longevity and base capability. The aims of physical fitness are multitudinous and reflect an extension of ability to excellence. Perhaps this is too simple, but you could say mental health is about surviving, and mental fitness is about thriving in some particular ways. Positive psychologists have a great deal to say about this putative notion of mental fitness and its various aims and excellences: creativity, curiosity, honesty, optimism, life satisfaction, good relationships, happiness, gratitude, compassion, self-esteem, hope, humor, wisdom, and so on. Clarifying all of this is highly non-trivial, I think, considering the literature on positive psychology and happiness studies.

I am sure there are many implications I have missed and problems with the definitions and the analogy, but it might be viable.

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