The mental health system aims to help us build stronger and happier selves. But is this the proper goal?

Exploring how family shapes us, learning to adjust thoughts to build confidence, and even mindfulness techniques that foster comfort with sensations are all directed at us as individuals. True, the family is a collective, thoughts occur in a social context, and mindfulness can reveal the unity of the cosmos. But mental health clinics emphasize shoring us up as individuals, not increasing our awareness of interconnection to others.

Seldom are we trained to look outside our own problems to see the larger world. Even more rarely are we encouraged to explore the relationship between our personal wellbeing and the health of the social network as a whole. But how beneficial is total focus on personality? Centuries of ‘rugged individualism,’ as practiced in America, have failed to create either a just society or a happy citizenry. And without a thriving culture, none of us can feel truly actualized.

In our immature phases, we think about our selves excessively. How am I doing relative to others? Am I attractive enough? Successful enough? Wealthy enough? Popular enough? With so much thought about ME, it is easy to get fooled into thinking the self important. In that inwardly directed frame of mind, the usual mental health agenda of strengthening the self seems appropriate.

In fact, however, the self centered attitude is the root of many mental health problems. A wiser approach is to reduce the ego’s stranglehold on life, and teach people to think of themselves as members of a cooperative rather than self-sufficient individuals.

Let’s remember our actual situation. All of us are dependent on others, none of is indispensable, and we live only a very short time. Imagine looking down from a jetliner at cruising altitude. Get a sense of the human scale against the backdrop of the planetary. This perspective makes it harder to feel as necessary as we do in our most narcissistic moments.

I’m fond of pointing out that to say the name of every person on earth, at the rate of one per second, would take two hundred years. A similar dwarfing occurs if we look at the length of a human life relative to the age of the earth. If the earth’s history were compressed to a single year, our lives would play out entirely in the final half-second.

The truth is, we are tiny beings of no great consequence beyond the small number of others who happen to have bonded with us. I say this not in a negative way, however, but to encourage us all to look at what matters more, what truly endures. Aside from life itself, the human family has developed enough to count even in this vast universe. And as members of it, we count too. Not as individuals, but as components of the larger whole.

So if our importance comes from association with the entire collective of people on earth, mental health clinics would do well to help us adjust our priorities. We should be encouraged to look less at our own problems and more at how we can benefit the human family. The focus should be on the common good, and not each person’s insistent but unimportant desires.

This is the path to sanity, and we will never find our way to genuine mental health until we take this larger and more inclusive view. No one entering a mental health clinic should be viewed as an isolated person needing help. Rather, every client should be seen as a faltering member of an unhealthy culture. Like canaries in the coal mine, the mentally distressed are the symptom, not the problem. Promoting efforts to repair our damaged social system is the best way to help those who suffer in it.

Conversely, teaching clients to work in whatever way they can to heal our culture is the best way to eliminate the contraction and pathological narcissism of mental distress.