HSV Lecture 2019 – Deep mental health through presence, meaning and connection

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Photo of Dr Debra Campbell

Humanists Victoria Public Lecture by Dr Debra Campbell, psychologist and author, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 22 Aug 2019

Deep mental health is not only an absence of illness, but a sense of thriving, of resourcefulness and resilience, and a deep-seated contentment amidst the vagaries of life. The Greek word, eudaimonia, which is translated as “welfare” or “flourishing”, is similar. The ancient philosophers discussed this topic at length. By contrast, happiness, although often seen as a goal, is more usefully regarded as a mood or feeling. Russ Harris in his book, The Happiness Trap [2011, ReadHowYouWant.com.Ltd], offers some helpful guidance about this.

Debra bases her insights on her experience as a therapist, her training and her own therapy, as well as wisdom gleaned from art and philosophy along the way. Guides, whom she has found particularly helpful, include Victor Frankl (1905–97), an Austrian Jewish psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor. He saw a personal search for meaning in life and a feeling of loving connection as vital for mental well-being. Erich Fromm (1900–80), psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, also emphasised love and connectedness as a way to combat the existential threat of aloneness.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938 and still continues in a modified form, has attempted to appraise what nurtures a satisfying, contented life and fosters longevity. Overwhelmingly, the data have pointed to the importance of relationships and community involvement. Similarly, the Blue Zone study has investigated five communities where there is a higher than average proportion of people living into old age. The communities were in Sardinia, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California, Icaria in Greece and the island of Okinawa in Japan. Ikigai, a Japanese word and concept that originated in Okinawa, is translated as ‘a reason for being’. In Debra’s view, it refers to the core passions or ‘flow experiences’ that sustain each individual.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse who recorded conversations with her dying patients, reported that their most common regrets were:

  • not having lived a life that was ‘true to myself’,
  • a wish not to have worked so hard,
  • not to have expressed my feelings more openly, including addressing anger and resentment,
  • not to have stayed in touch with friends more,
  • not to have allowed myself to be happier.

Some therapeutic suggestions

Debra related these misgivings back to her working theory of three great loves: self-compassion, love of others and personal passions or flow experiences. A clue to flow activities may be in found in what we gravitate to when we are alone. Is it art, music, sport or another passion that holds our attention fully and provides a sense of challenge?

Self-compassion she described as a loving attitude to oneself which, she finds, often needs considerable attention in therapy. Too often her clients have an over-active internal critic which disparages and undermines their self-esteem. This may be internalised from earlier relationships or may be a temperamental trait. She suggests setting up an internal boardroom where various viewpoints, positive and negative, are canvassed. Many people find this a helpful strategy and in being kinder to themselves become less vulnerable to external setbacks. She also works at length with her clients to help them recognise and own their feelings, especially anger. Anger may be expressed in a variety of ways, and healthy outlets can include hobbies and exercise. However, if anger is turned inwards it is usually self-destructive and may lead to depression. Often, in those cases, anger is not recognised for what it is.

In her work with couples, Debra focuses on four basic behaviours that are unhelpful and counterproductive for sustaining love in relationships.

  1. Criticism – Evidence from the Gottman Institute suggests that after a critical remark at least four positive exchanges are needed to repair the damage. Criticism is an inefficient way to try and achieve change. It is far more helpful to explain the effect of another’s action or request an alternative approach be tried.
  2. Contempt – This may be expressed as name-calling, or verbal or physical abuse.
  3. Defensiveness – This is often a knee-jerk reaction and frequently results in a tit-for-tat response. However, it usually means that the capacity to listen and reflect has been short-circuited.
  4. Acting out – This includes sulking rather than discussing an issue, or maintaining a hostile silence.

It is far better to recognize the feelings at play and find a way to express them in words. Developing skills in observing one’s feelings and reactions and learning to discuss them could be taught at any age. It could help to improve any relationship, she suggests, even public exchanges such as parliament!

There are a number of apps that can be downloaded to assist in developing inner listening skills and help reduce reactivity. These include Mindfulness, Smiling Mind, Calm, Simple Habit and Headspace – meditation, sleep and mindfulness. Debra also has a daily email service, called the 3 Loves Project. Submit your email address to her Dr Debra Campbell Online web site to receive emails daily for one year.


Campbell, Dr Debra, Lovelands, Hardie Grant, 2017.

Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946.

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Loving, 1956.

Harris, Dr Russ, The Happiness Trap, ReadHowYouWant.com.Ltd, 2011.

Ware, Bronnie, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Hay House UK Ltd., 2019.

Report by Jennie Stuart