What is good mental health?

Think of mental health and a list of mental illness often springs to mind – there’s depression and anxiety, eating disorders and addictions, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to name just a few.

Efforts to raise awareness of mental illness mean most of us are now somewhat familiar with the more common mental disorders, even if we’ve never had the personal experience of one.

But in recent years, both researchers and clinicians have been moving away from viewing mental health in terms of the presence or absence of symptoms. Instead, they have been seeking to discover what it means to be in good mental health, and what we can do to foster our own mental wellbeing.

According to Tim Sharp, founder and Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute, the shift has been an important one. Rather than spending most of his time stopping people from being at their worst, he now devotes much of his working life to ensuring people are at their best.

What is good mental health?

Psychologist Martin Seligman has been raising the profile of positive psychology over the past two decades.

Seligman’s notion of good mental health boils down to five key domains that together form the acronym PERMA: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments. However, other researchers believe additional factors also play a role.

Felicia Huppert, director of the WellBeing Institute at the University of Cambridge and Professor of Psychology at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University, has been studying mental wellbeing for more than two decades. She describes mental health as being a spectrum.

“At one end are the common mental disorders [of anxiety and depression] and at the other end is positive mental health, or flourishing,” she says.

To define what it means to flourish, Huppert reasoned that attributes of positive mental health would be opposite those that define poor mental health. By looking at internationally agreed measures of depression and anxiety and defining the opposite of each symptom, Huppert distilled a list of 10 features of positive wellbeing.

This list includes the five PERMA attributes, as well as emotional stability, optimism, resilience, self-esteem and vitality.