As someone who thinks a lot about mental health, I have always been a sucker for the month of December. Even though our climate gives us dark days and cold temperatures, our consumer-driven culture pushes us to gobble up the bargains and drain our wallets, and our pandemic-laden times give us an unrelenting barrage of stress, the 12th month of every year has elements that can boost anyone’s mental health, if you look for them.
If you never thought about your mental well-being, seems to me like it’s a good time to start. Just a few days ago, the respected Gallup organization announced it is partnering with powerhouse Magellan Health “to execute the largest well-being study ever” so that everyone — especially employers — can find ways to help people thrive. Why? Because reading the signs of the times tells them that, in 2020, seven out of 10 people on the globe were struggling or suffering in their lives. Those signs have to do with the rising number of suicides, deaths of despair caused by substances (what they call “suicide in slow motion”), self-reports of anxiety, depression and toxic, violence and unending stress. While all these phenomena were present before the pandemic, our battle with COVID-19 is making them all worse.
But from my vantage point, the month of December is packed with potent messages of health and hope. First of all, consider the emotions that, for most of us in the United States, bookend our holiday season.
It starts with Thanksgiving, a holiday that should be about something bigger than football or a Macy’s Parade. Most people would agree that it’s about gratitude, a feeling that many see as a fundamental key to happiness. Less known is the fact that when President Lincoln set the day on the path to becoming a national holiday, he also hoped that a day of prayerful reflection would help “heal the wounds of our Nation.” Looks like we need that now too.
On the other end, the month has an abundance of messages about and opportunities for altruism. We should probably thank Charles Dickens for that because his Christmas Carol reinvented Dec. 25 to slowly brand it to be about charity. These days, there is a ton of research behind the fact that thinking of others through acts of kindness strengthens our own mental and physical health. Giving seems to help both the giver and receiver alike.
In the middle, the month can give us some powerful images, music and messages, many of which come from rich faith traditions. For example, the theme of light — from the menorah to the star of Bethlehem to the illuminated trees and houses everywhere — is a strong antidote to gloom. That brightness is associated with hope, another healthy emotion, made even more real as we turn the corner of the winter solstice and slowly see more daylight coming our way. Hope, the expectation that something you desire will be achieved, pushes the mind toward the positive. By some mysterious force, the darkness cannot win.
Before it’s over, December extends one more invitation that some people can’t resist — they make a New Year’s resolution. To do so seriously, one would take stock of the previous year, assess and make a goal. Quiet reflection is most often a good mental health thing; you can’t do it with a computer screen, nor by texting, nor by watching videos or TV. Sitting with your thoughts, what some people call meditation, need not be devoted to worrying or anxiety but a time to slow down, rest and reflect.
There’s a reason that the brainy people at Gallup are stepping up their focus on mental well-being around the globe. While they’ve been studying that since the late ’70s, they explained their new sense of urgency a few weeks ago. Looking at their mountains of survey data from many countries and reading these “tea leaves,” they conclude that the next pandemic on our planet could well be about mental health.
Perhaps we’d all do better by giving energy to our mental well-being and finding the opportunities for that whenever they come around.