I've heard it said that Freud's definition of the goal of therapy was this: to transform neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering. One might infer that his definition of mental health was the capacity to suffer "normally" rather than "neurotically". Freud is also purported to have said that mental health was the capacity to love and work. While I like both of those concepts I have a definition of mental health that I like even better: response flexibility. What exactly does that mean? To me, response flexibility means tht whatever situation you are in, you are able to respond in the best manner given the circumstances. Many of us actually respond to situations based on a surprisingly limited repertoire of alternatives. For instance, if you were raised in a family where conflict was avoided, when you encounter conflict I can predict you will try to avoid it if at all possible. But what if in that situation the best response is to actually engage in the conflict? What if the conflict is a conversation with your boss about why you, versus your co-worker, should be given the promotion? By avoiding conflict or discord you may sell yourself short of some important opportunities.
So in this example what can you do? If you have good mental health you would be able to respond assertively or move in to the conflictual conversation without being overly intimidated. This would predict you had either grown up in a pretty healthy family or you had worked hard to overcome your default response of avoiding conflict. In either situation if you can respond adaptively rather than reflexively you have good mental health.
Too many of us, however, don't have this kind of flexibility. We are on auto-pilot much of the time, running via default programs that we learned in our family of origin. I would argue that this is not "good" mental health! I believe all people can learn to un-do unhealthy or limiting patterns and enlarge their repertoire of behaviors. This does not mean giving up the old patterns but rather layering on new ones to allow for more flexibility in responses.
While that is my favorite definition of mental health (which incidentally also guides my work as a therapist) there are certainly others worth considering. For instance, in the Shedler Westen Assessment Procedure (SWAP–200; Shedler & Westen, 2007) mental health is defined in much more detailed terms:
● Is able to use his/her talents, abilities, and energy effectively and productively.
● Enjoys challenges; takes pleasure in accomplishing things.
● Finds meaning in belonging and contributing to a larger community (e.g., organization, church, neighborhood).
● Is able to find meaning and fulfillment in guiding, mentoring, or nurturing others.
● Is empathic; is sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs and feelings.
● Is able to assert him/herself effectively and appropriately when necessary.
● Appreciates and responds to humor.
● Is capable of hearing information that is emotionally threatening (i.e., that challenges cherished beliefs, perceptions, and self-perceptions) and can use and benefit from it.
● Appears to have come to terms with painful experiences from the past; has found meaning in and grown from such experiences.
● Is articulate; can express self well in words.
● Has an active and satisfying sex life.
● Appears comfortable and at ease in social situations.
● Generally finds contentment and happiness in life’s activities.
● Tends to express affect appropriate in quality and intensity to the situation at hand.
● Has the capacity to recognize alternative viewpoints, even in matters that stir up strong feelings.
● Has moral and ethical standards and strives to live up to them.
● Is creative; is able to see things or approach problems in novel ways.
● Tends to be conscientious and responsible.
● Tends to be energetic and outgoing.
● Is psychologically insightful; is able to understand self and others in subtle and sophisticated ways.
● Is able to find meaning and satisfaction in the pursuit of long-term goals and ambitions.
● Is capable of sustaining a meaningful love relationship characterized by genuine intimacy and caring.
● Is able to form close and lasting friendships characterized by mutual support and sharing of experiences.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as "as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community." They go on to elaborate that "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
The question of what defines good mental health is certainly worth entertaining. How do you know if you need to work on yourself if you don't know what the goal is? I encourage you to give some thought to what definition of mental health appeals most to you and then check yourself accordingly. Not to skewer yourself for failing that standard in some ways (after all that would not be very mentally healthy!) but rather to see areas where you may want to change and grow. None of us can be 100% mentally healthy all of the time, but all of us are capable of improving.
Therapy is an amazing tool for growth, as are 12-step groups, meditation practices, support groups, spiritual practices and even yoga when the philosophical aspects are included. I encourage you to think about ways that you can assist yourself in growing towards more mental health.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.