Monday, October 24, 2011

Health and Productivity 3: Mental Health

Health isn't all about the body, you know; your mind plays a large part in it as well. In this instalment of the Health and Productivity series, I'll be taking a look at the meaning of "mental health" and the impacts it has on your productivity and lifestyle.

I want to add a caveat to this article from the very beginning: this article does not cover the emotional aspects of mental health. Emotional health will be discussed in the next article on spiritual well-being. The mental health we'll be discussing involves the intellect, logic, and creativity.

Mental Health as Memory
Memory is something we don't always think about, but our technologies and lifestyles circle the idea. Day by day, we are bombarded with information of all sorts and sources. We have responded by developing new technologies to store that information; PDAs (and now Smart Phones), computer archives, VPNs. Even having said that, we have to remember several (and sometimes dozens) of computer passwords and PINs. We meet hundreds of people in our lifetime, and their names are important.

I have found that, as the technology for storing information improves (along with the technology for searching those archives), we tend to lose some of our own ability to remember things. I'm not saying that's necessarally bad. You don't need to be able to pull an arcane marketing statistic from the earlier part of the century off the top of your head. Some stuff we just can't offload, though. You need to be able to remember your passwords, how your filing system works, how to spell various people's names, and your anniversary (to name a few things).

Memory has a direct impact on productivity. The more we can remember, the less we have to look up, and the quicker we can put documents and presentations together. Better memory means more engaging presentations, less follow-up response, and a faster flow of information. As an accountant, I would certainly want to remember the formulas for depreciation. Having to look up something like that every time I needed to make a depreciation adjustment would severely hamper my efficiency.

So what do you do about improving memory? Train it. Play matching games, or force yourself to remember more (I like to use many different passwords and force myself to remember them individually in order to keep the engine running). Some games and websites claim to be good for memory. I can't speak to the validity of the games, but I do know that spending an hour on a game that challenges your mental recall would be better for the brain than an hour of Quake.

Mental Health as Creativity
Almost as important as memory is creativity. Even if you work in the most tedious or mundane of fields, a little creativity goes a long way. Further, creativity gives the brain a level of use like no other. The mind never processes data as fast as it does when it is creating new ideas, and a strong creative drive is a cornerstone of problem solving.

If you ask a spread of average students about their creativity, most will tell you that they "aren't that creative". But if you take that same group and ask what they do to be creative, you'll find a correlation between their self-evaluated creativity and their hobbies.

There's a lot to be done about creativity. Just like memory, it's a question of exercise. Here are a few "creative exercises" for any individual to pursue.

  • Haiku the News: Responding to news events is one thing... but can you sum up your position in 17 syllables? (Variations include using other poetic meters)
  • Start a Blog: Writing doesn't have to be poetic or creative to use creativity. Simply writing a journal or blog about your daily life involves an aspect of creativity.
  • Drawing, Painting, Music.
Mental Health as Problem Solving Capacity
Ask a handful of students at any level what the hardest part of math is, and they'll say Word Problems. Most people can grasp the basics of mathematics, at least enough to run formulae through to their conclusion. But when the math isn't handed to you already set up, the difficulty seems to increase tenfold for some individuals.

A word problem is what you're most likely to encounter in a professional or household setting. Sometimes you solve a word problem without even thinking about it. "How much does this cost after sales tax?". "How early should I leave to make it to work on time?". "How long will this case of eggs last?".

The only way to improve our capacity for solving problems, in math or otherwise, is to do it. Creativity and a wealth of general-knowledge from which to draw inspiration helps, but in the end, it's on you to find the solution.

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