Chapter 2 – What is mental fitness? Self-improvement as a type of mental fitness training

Most people understand the concept of physical fitness. 

We understand that our physical bodies need to be looked after in order to function effectively and that we can participate more fully in life if we are physically fit. To get physically fit requires regular physical activity (exercise), good nutrition and appropriate time for rest and recuperation. 

We also understand that if we work on our physical fitness, we stand to gain a number of benefits. 

Physically we get faster, stronger, more agile, more coordinated, better balance, more flexible and have greater endurance. These improvements help us cope with and thrive in the face of the physical demands of life. We lower our risk of injury and illness and we potentially increase our lifespan. Our appearance may improve. 

Psychologically, we also gain a number of benefits: better mood, opportunities for social interaction, confidence, better memory, increased ability to concentrate and resilience. 

Thus, whilst we may not all be working on our physical fitness, there is generally widespread agreement that doing so is a valuable investment to make in one’s life. 

A couple of years back I heard the term ‘mental fitness’. The term has actually been around since the 60’s but it is not a term that is used widely and certainly hasn’t achieved the level of understanding that the term physical fitness has. I think that is a shame, because the two are deeply intertwined. 

Where physical fitness is the capacity of our bodies to meet the physical demands of life, mental fitness is the capacity of our minds to meet the psychological demands of life.

Where physical fitness consists of a number of physical capacities: speed, strength, agility, coordination, balance, flexibility and endurance, mental fitness similarly consists of a number of psychological capacities: perception, attention, concentration, knowledge, imagination, thinking, judgement, language, memory, decision-making, feelings/emotions, intelligence, beliefs, identity (sense of self) and resilience (collectively referred to as ‘mind’). 

Where physical fitness is achieved through training of the body, mental fitness is achieved through training the mind.   

Finally, when we train one, we typically improve the other. For example, as I indicated previously, people who work on their physical fitness typically report a number of psychological benefits.       

Yeah, but can we train our minds?

The answer (in my view) is definitely yes. 

Although we don’t use the term mental fitness widely, deliberate training of the mind has been a feature of human activity for thousands of years. 

Consider the following:

You might spend ¼ of your life in some kind of education (kindergarten, primary school, high school, university) building knowledge and skills to help you in your life and career. 

We know that individuals who seek out psychological therapy (talk-therapy) often make significant improvements in their ability to manage strong emotions and improve their relationships with others. 

Individuals with normal brains can train themselves to do remarkable feats of memory and concentration – https://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do?language=en

Long-term meditators show changes to their physical brain that are associated with positive psychological benefits such as pain sensitivity – https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2010-01983-010

When appropriately diagnosed, individuals with certain disorders such as ADHD, show a range of psychological improvements when starting a relevant medication. Their ability to ‘think’ improves.  

Philosophers throughout the ages have identified psychological practices that lead to improved wellbeing and capacity to deal with adversity (e.g. Stoicism). 

Individuals who train their bodies (physical fitness) tend to report psychological benefits as well: mood, concentration, memory etc. Our physical fitness and mental fitness are highly inter-linked. 

And this is just a handful of examples. 

The takeaway message is that it is possible to train the mind, and as a species we’ve been doing it for a long-time. 

Why should I train my mind?

There are many ways of answering this question and what will motivate you to train your mind may be different from what motivates a friend or family member. 

  1. You might have a very psychologically demanding life – lots of responsibilities or challenges – which regularly leaves you feeling very mentally or emotionally fatigued. Training your mind will be about building up your mental strength in order to better respond to these challenges.
  2. Maybe you are unwell – struggling with physical or mental illness. If so, training your mind might be part of your pathway to recovery or rehabilitation, alongside your existing treatments. 
  3. It could be that you have some very specific personal goals in your life, but suspect you’ll need to be ‘better’ in some way to achieve those goals. Maybe you want to be promoted, start a business or compete in a sport at a high level. Maybe you are looking to get into a higher degree (e.g. Masters or PhD). Training your mind will be about getting you closer to achieving those goals. 
  4. Maybe you would just like to ‘feel better’. Something about your conscious experience just doesn’t feel right. You have too few experiences of love, curiousity, achievement, meaning/purpose, spirituality, happiness or contentment and too many experiences of pain, suffering and grief. Training your mind will be an attempt to address that imbalance.   

We’ll explore this further in Chapter 5 under “Purpose” but for the time being, it is enough to simply accept that there can be many different reasons why someone would make a deliberate decision to train their mind. 

OK then, how do I train my mind?

I’ve touched on a few ways already that you can train your mind: education, therapy, meditation, medication, exercise.

If you are currently studying, you are already training your mind. You are acquiring knowledge and skills and habits and ways of thinking about the world that will enhance your capacity to engage with the world. You should acknowledge that to yourself. 

In terms of other ways to training your mind, essentially I divide the methods into two categories: formal and informal. 

Formal methods for training your mind typically involve you seeking out professional assistance, often at a cost, to work on something specific, under their guidance.  

This might include starting a degree or training program, getting a therapist or coach, joining a gym and getting a personal trainer or starting a medication under the supervision of a doctor.

The key characteristic of a formal method of training your mind is that you are following directly the program or advice of a professional. You are being taught/trained. 

Formal methods of training your mind have many advantages: 

  • You are gaining expertise from a trained professional
  • You may be getting an intervention that has been shown to help people make changes to the way they think and behave
  • The path through the program is better defined
  • You don’t have to take responsibility for the program content 
  • There are typically formal ways of assessing your progress

Formal methods have a few downsides: 

  • You are beholden to the timeline and availability of the professional
  • There is often a significant cost in terms of money and time commitment
  • You can’t necessarily modify the program for your own needs 

Informal methods are all those self-guided modifications you make to your own life that are done with the goal of self-improvement. These might be modifications to your daily schedule, workflows, choices of activities, ways of solving problems. Essentially you are finding ways to embed mental fitness training into your daily life. 

The key characteristic of an informal method of training your mind is that you are in charge of the process. You are training yourself.  

Informal methods have a number of advantages: 

  • Because they are created and shaped by you, they are customised to your situation
  • You can fit them in around your existing life
  • Not only do you get better in the area in which you are making an improvement, you get better at making improvements. 

Informal methods however have a few downsides:

  • You typically don’t get anywhere near the same amount of specialist guidance along the way
  • You are accountable to yourself and have to generate your own motivation
  • ‘It can be hard to work out where and how to get started’

That final point – ‘It can be hard to work out where and how to get started’ – is why I wrote this workbook. 

This workbook is designed to help you get started on your own informal program of mental fitness. In it I will give you a framework for self-improvement that you can start applying straight away in your own life to start building your own informal mental fitness program. I won’t be telling you what to work on (although I will point out some possibilities). Instead I’ll explain how you can work out for yourself what you need to work on and then how to go about it. It isn’t a book about what to change, it is a book about how to change. 

Why self-improvement?

I said earlier that mental fitness is about training the mind. 

How does ‘self-improvement’ train the mind?

Self-improvement is simply the process of enhancing, growing or developing some aspect of our physical, psychological, social, spiritual or environmental selves. There are many areas where we can self-improve (I’ll cover these in Chapter 7). 

To successfully make improvements in our lives, we need to get a number of psychological processes working in harmony such as positive attitude, self-reflection, setting goals, gaining knowledge, learning new skills, assessing outcomes and forming habits. 

Every time we try and/or succeed in making some kind of improvement to our lives, we get better at those underlying psychological skills. 

It’s a double win. You get the benefit of whatever improvement you’ve made (e.g. health benefits of a diet change) but you also develop the underlying psychological skills necessary to make life changes. You train your mind to be better at making changes. This can help you across multiple aspects of life. 

This workbook

In this workbook, I’ll teach you a framework for self-improvement and encourage you to apply it in your own life. 

In doing so, you’ll develop a few informal methods for training your mind. 

Now it is very possible that this workbook will encourage or motivate you to ‘up the ante’ and sign up for a more formal mind training methods such as a formal program or intervention. That is totally fine and I would consider that a success. 

It might also be that the lessons you learn from this workbook about how people make changes will help you engage more effectively with some kind of formal training that you are already doing (e.g. study). That would also be a win. 

Or it might simply be that this workbook and the processes/procedures described within are sufficient for you to take charge of modifying your own life in order to build mental fitness. 

Regardless, this workbook is about you feeling more confident to start building your mental fitness. 

Are you, the author, training your mind?

Yes. I am. 

Formally, I use a paid meditation app to learn the art of meditation. I’ve been doing that for the last 6+ months. I decided to go the formal route for this training, as I wanted to learn meditation from someone with significant expertise. 

I also subscribe to a financial newsletter to learn more about budgeting, saving, and investing. 

Informally however, I’ve made a number of changes/improvements in my life over the past couple of years:

  • I’ve developed my own weights training program and have a home gym where I workout. 
  • I’ve made improvements to my diet on the basis of learning more about gut health. 
  • I’ve modified my sleep schedule based on reading I did about the benefits of sleep.
  • I decluttered my house, having learned about the effects of clutter on psychological health. 
  • I’ve built up a collection of podcasts on topics of interest to me that I listen to in the car on the way to and from work. 
  • I use a standing desk at work and lunchtime walks to reduce sedentary behaviour. 

I’m now looking at increasing the time spent reading (reduce TV) and contemplating going back to some formal study to improve my writing ability. 

Along the way I’ve made lots of mistakes and had lots of false starts. Those experiences, along with my knowledge of psychology are the basis of the self-improvement framework outlined in this workbook. 

I consider myself as much a student of self-improvement as I am a teacher. 

Writing this workbook is a valuable opportunity for me to share what I’ve learned along the way in my own self-improvement/ mental fitness efforts.