It’s typically easy to recognize “problematic” mental health — most of the time we know how to recognize anxiety, depression, stress, conflict…the list goes on. When we strive for good mental health, however, it’s a little harder to figure out exactly what that means.
What is good mental health, and how do we know when we’ve got it? Everything you need to know can be found below.
New Thinking About an Old Problem
Even experts have trouble agreeing on what good mental health looks like, so a group of psychiatry researchers recently reviewed ideas from around the world, hoping for a more useful and standardized way to think about mental health.
The authors crafted a definition that fits well with what mental health professionals look for when working with clients. Unfortunately, their definition is not very clear to most people outside the clinical and professional worlds of psychology and psychology.
In their paper, these authors proposed the following definition:
“Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individual to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express, and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; feasibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationships between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium.”
What a mouthful! What does this definition really mean?
Good Mental Health Explained
Fortunately, these authors broke down their definition in a way that helps us make sense of it. Using their explanations as a guideline, let’s look at what this definition tells us about good mental health.
We can’t be happy all the time. In fact, being happy in the midst of tragedy could actually be a sign of poor mental health. How we feel is less important than whether the feelings objectively match the situation. In addition, our ability to recover from stressors matters.
In short, dynamic equilibrium is just a fancy way to say that our reactions fit the circumstances, but we bounce back when life throws curve balls (better known as “resilience”).
Cognitive and social skills
Good mental health depends on our ability to think, plan, and act in socially effective ways. It’s possible to have some problems in this area but still function effectively.
Many people function well because they use their strengths to make up for their deficits. For example, someone with ADHD might compensate by using organizers and timers, while someone who’s naturally shy might bring a friend along to a new social activity.
Empathy allows you to understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings based on your own experiences. It helps us get along with other people.
A callous, uncaring person is likely to have chronic lack of empathy. On the other hand, being too empathic to stand up for yourself when necessary can lead to greater issues, such as anxiety or depression. Appropriate empathy keeps our relationships intact even as we meet our own needs.
Flexibility and adaptability
Good mental health requires us to accept life’s inevitable changes, then adjust our behaviors to function adequately. In other words, we roll with life’s punches.
It’s normal for bad things to upset us. Good mental health requires us to accept that change happens, then choose healthy behaviors to handle the new situation effectively.
Poor diet, lack of sleep, and inadequate physical activity affect our minds just as they do our bodies, because mind and body are one and the same. A mind can’t be healthy if its home is crumbling around it.
Putting it All Together
While older definitions of mental health focus heavily on happiness or were limited to a single society’s values, the authors of the new study developed a broader definition. Their work offers a good explanation of what mental health professionals look for when we decide how to help our clients.
It’s normal to be unhappy sometimes, to worry sometimes, to get angry when someone wrongs you, or grieve when someone leaves. The most important things are:
- How well you function in all of your roles,
- Whether you bounce back from challenges effectively, and
- How you use your strengths to make up for deficits.
No matter what your diagnosis or challenge, a therapist’s goal is to help you function at your best using the abilities you have. When you seek the same for yourself, positive changes naturally follow.