The Public Health Agency of Canada defines mental health as follows:
The capacity of each of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity.
This is overcomplicated. It’s also wrong. How does mental health “respect the importance of social justice”? This definition does not match what people mean when they use the term “mental health”. A better, simpler definition could be:
A pattern of positive emotion and functional cognition.
Dictionary.com gives an even better simple definition than my attempt:
Psychological well-being and satisfactory adjustment to society and to the ordinary demands of life.
Why do we do this? I think it’s because it is easy to justify adding complexity, but hard to justify removing it unless you specifically value concision. If I was a member of the Public Health Agency of Canada, and I suggested my simpler definition, people would cry, “But what about culture?” “But shouldn’t we include social justice?” “What about personal dignity?” “What about spiritualty?” And for me to argue against these inclusions, I would be viewed as anti-multiculturalism, anti-dignity, and so on. I would be seen as using simplicity as an excuse for excluding important concepts.
But definitions are not where we decide what concepts we find important! Definitions are descriptions of the meaning of a word. That’s it. If you want to emphasize social justice and equity, fine, do it in a mission statement. But including them in a definition is overcomplicating something which is supposed to be simple. Don’t include everything; only include the stuff you need. Only include the good stuff.
Failure to adhere to this principle is a form of conceptual hoarding which makes society harder to understand for everyone, as we have to allocate more of our cognitive resources to parsing unnecessary complexity. It also makes it impossible for people with low IQ (including those with an intellectual disability) or low education (including people of low economic statusThe term “socioeconomic status” seems like the same kind of kitchen-sink complexity to me. Name someone with relatively high economic status, but who still has low socioeconomic status. The ‘socio’ is redundant, and only included because it’s hard to justify excluding it. to understand or remember certain concepts. Someone with cognitive impairment from Alzheimer’s disease might have a hard time remembering the name of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association, but can more easily remember the new name of that organization: the Alzheimer’s Association.
I commend the Alzheimer’s Association on simplifying their name, but the general trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. Looking through the departments of the Canadian government, you can see there are many names which are clearly too complex:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada should just be Agriculture Canada. Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission should just be Communications Canada. Canadian Special Operations Forces Command should just be the Canadian Special Forces. The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Canada should just be Financial Analysis Canada. Why can’t they all be like Justice Canada and Finance Canada?
Part of me thinks that if the Government of Canada itself was named today, it would be called something like the Organization for the Betterment of Canadian Well-Being and Dignity and the Improvement of Society for all Canadians, both First Nations and non-First Nations.
The American government seems just as bad:
The Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health & Community Resilience could just be the National Community Division. The National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology should just be the National Health Information Centre. And I have given up when it comes to the Alaska Native-Serving and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions Education Competitive Grants Program.
And they’re not just complicated in name, but in structure. The United States has hundreds of different agencies. No human being has a hope of understanding them all, though they pay for them all. Why do we have so many agencies? Is it simply because it‘s easier to justify adding a new agency than it is to justify cutting one?
The law can be similarly overcomplicated. And yet we all have to follow it. How can we follow rules that most of us are not even educated enough to understand? Laws which apply to everyone (non-corporate etc.) should be written in plain English.
I found an article from the Michegan Bar Journal shaming some examples of legalese. Here is one of the examples:
EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 1994-22
RESCISSION OF EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 1994-19
WHEREAS, Article V Section 2, of the Constitution of the State of Michigan of 1963 empowers the Governor to make changes in the organization of the Executive Branch or in the assignment of functions among its units which he considers necessary for efficient administration; and
WHEREAS, such a procedure cannot be effected through Executive Order, but only through amendment of the Michigan Election Law, a course of action which I intend to seek forthwith.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, John Engler, Governor of the State of Michigan, pursuant to the powers vested in me by the Constitution of the State of Michigan of 1963 and the laws of the State of Michigan, do hereby order that Executive Order No. 1994-19 is hereby rescinded. The provisions of this Executive Order shall become effective immediately upon filing. Given under my hand and the Great Seal of the State of Michigan this 25th day of August, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Ninety-Four, and of the Commonwealth, One Hundred Fifty-Eight.
Here is my attempt at simplifying this:
Executive Order No. 1994-22
August 25th, 1994
By the authority vested in my as Governor by Article V Section 2 of the Constitution of the State of Michegan, I order that Executive Order No. 1994-19 is rescinded, effective immediately.
I’m no lawyer, so maybe I excluded something that needed to be included. But I definitely removed a lot of repitition and unnecessary information. The fact that the original wrote “1994” as “the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Ninety-Four, and of the Commonwealth, One Hundred Fifty-Eight” is ludicrous. But I guess if you’re Governor, you need to fill your executive orders with language that’s all official-like so people don’t realize you’re just a human and you don’t really know what you’re doing. Or maybe you just don’t want people to be able to understand when you’re screwing them over.
Also, the United States has over 4000 federal crimes on the books, some of them clear, and some of them not. How can a person be expected to follow these laws if they are uneducated or they have an intellectual disability? How can anyone?
There are plenty of other areas where I have noticed this type of vacuous complexity caused by the difficulty in justifying simplicity. Many textbooks are information-sparse and you have to skim a lot to read them. I think this is because it is easy to justify selling a long textbook, but hard to justify selling a short textbook. It’s also hard to justify including a 2-page chapter, so all chapters are padded out to the same length, as if every topic has the same amount of information known about it.
I’ve also noticed a trend on the internet where writers pad out their writing and then use italics and bold to reassure their reader that this sentence, at least, won’t be a waste of their time. There is no required word count for an article, and yet there aren’t many two-paragraph articles. Is every idea worth publishing in an article so complex that it can’t be rendered in two paragraphs? Or is it just that writers feel that articles are supposed to be a certain length?
Code rot and the growth of complexity of software applications over time is also an example of a broader simplicity rot. It’s easy to justify adding a new feature unless you explicitly compare the value added by the new feature with the value subtracted due to a loss of simplicity. Good visual design can simplify a cluttered user-interface, but a truly good design will reduce the number of features of a program in the first place.
No matter how much we remind ourselves to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”, we nevertheless continue to clutter our speech, our laws, our technologies, and our society as a whole. And I’m not really sure how to fight it, besides saying, “this is simplicity rot and I won’t allow it.” We need a culture of simplicity, where instead of overcomplicating things to show how smart we are, we simplify things to show how smart we are. I see no alternative.