[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, September 2012]

I’ve received an email forward several times, which states something like:  “When the character of a person is not clear to you, look at their friends.”  Usually attributed to “a Japanese Proverb,” it may be merely apocryphal.  But I think there is truth in it.  In fact, I’ve found that as I change and friends don’t, the relationship tends to fade.

But can we stand this wisdom on its head?  That is, can we spot the kinds of people and relationships we want in advance?  Can we surround ourselves with the mentally healthy, and in so doing, bolster our own inner resources for coping?  I believe a few such behaviors do in fact seem to point to psychic wellness.  Consider these questions about others:

1.  Do they challenge themselves?

When you’re looking to make a new friend, consider what they do with their spare time.  Do they seek hobbies that are difficult, intricate or that force them to master new skills?  Such people have the potential to be passionate conversationalists and conscientious companions.  These are friends who accept the reality that standing still in life is impossible; we either claw our way forward, or we slide inexorably backward.  Conversely, if all a prospective friend does after work is sit in front of the television or sleep, there isn’t likely to be much to drive the relationship.

2.  What’s their tolerance for failure?

Common wisdom says that nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy.  When they face setbacks, mentally healthy people will keep coming back at meaningful goals, projects or hobbies, even when the task is hard.  If their skills aren’t up to it, they either work to increase their skills, or meaningfully de-escalate their goals.  But they stay committed.  The person who gives up or who won’t try again if they don’t immediately succeed is not likely to be reliable in a relationship, nor will they be someone who will carry their own proverbial weight in circumstances of interdependence.

3.  How open to new experiences are they?

Everyone has boundaries, and no one is open to everything.  I don’t need to try bungee jumping to know it isn’t for me, nor taste foods made from congealed animal blood.  On the other hand, how much is recreational falling or culinary bloodlicking part of my daily life?  The distinction is in how tight are the boundaries.  A mentally healthy person has boundaries realistic to their day-to-day life.  They are open to new experience, and willing to let the evidence inform their opinions about life.  By contrast, the mentally unhealthy person will have restrictive boundaries and predetermined judgements, without the benefit of direct experience.  The healthy person will let her or himself be influenced by life, while the unhealthy person tries to wall it off and hide behind their preconceptions.  These are the same people who only eat the same foods they ate in childhood.

4.  Are they “sensitive?”

Mentally healthy people understand that not all conditions or circumstances will be favorable to them.  They are willing to endure, at least for a time, with an understanding that this too shall pass.  Discomfort isn’t forever, and may be worth it, either out of politeness, or to gain a more valuable experience.  Ask any deer hunter, for example, who is willing to sit in the cold for ten hours, just for the chance at a deer.  Or the bridesmaid who crams herself into a strapless dress with burdensome skirts, merciless boning or abrasive lace, because it is someone else’s special day, not hers.  Their unhealthy counterpart will tend to complain more, to cite “sensitivities,” make excuses to escape or otherwise draw attention to themselves.

    I doubt anyone meets ALL of these conditions ALL the time.  We’re all human.  But I think these broad benchmarks can help gauge mental health and future rewarding relationships.

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