A good friend is giving a talk on emotional health and sent out an email to people he knew to ask what emotional health looks like to them. Here is my response. This is far from an complete take, but I do think that joy is a significant mark of emotional health.
I guess that by responding to this, I am declaring myself as emotionally healthy, and that alone makes me pause. So I’ll put it this way, when I am feeling particularly emotionally healthy, I notice that these other things are happening. I only have a moment to write this, so you will have to forgive the grammatical mistakes.
The big mark of health for me is joy, or rather that I am living life actively exploring reasons to be joyful. Not in the power-of-positive-thinking sense or putting-a-good-spin-on-bad things sense. The world is fallen and broken, but there is a lot to be joyful about as well. As a matter of fact, because Christians have an eternal scope of life, we, of everyone, can dabble in joy. Spilling out of the overarching joy of the Lord that is our strength, I think joy shows up in two ways for me: my play and my relationships.
My ability to play, to lighten up when the situation allows, and to find joy in God’s world is immensely pleasing to God and therefore meaningful and pleasing for his creation. Think of your children playing in the yard, even if they are for a moment completely unmindful of you. Just watching them play and laugh and imagine. There is a surprising joy that comes from that. I can’t help but believe that God feels that too, both as father (we are his children) and as creator (we are enjoying the toys he made).
Secondly, I am finding joy in relationships, which is related to play. Being playfully generous with another, enjoying a person and the story they bring to your story, even the sad and painful parts. Really engaging that in others. Hearing who they are, sharing yourself, not to get anything from them or manipulate them, but just to experience the richness of God’s creation in another person. People talk about relationships as investments, and I think that view can have a place in the right context, but if that is your only view of relationship, then you are missing what I think is a crucial kind of joy. It is the sort of joy the Lord had when he created the world and called it good, the kind of joy God felt when he recognized Israel as his people and Jesus as his son (“in whom I am well-pleased”). It is the joy to know and be known.
Life lived in the freedom, reconciliation, and hope of the gospel is open to meaningful play and joyful relationships, but it takes discipline through grace for most of us to really experience these things. We have to start looking for and expecting something that many of us have been conditioned to believe doesn’t exist. Play does not equal laziness or irresponsibility, and relationships are not primarily for the purpose of getting what you want and/or protecting yourself from abuse.
I have found that when I play and have relationships well, just for the sake of those things, many of the other pieces of emotional health fall into place.