what is mental health and why is it so hard to define?

three laughing women

You’ve probably heard over and over about the importance of having good mental health and how most people are struggling with it. But what does having “good mental health” actually mean? Although psychologists, philosophers, and self-help gurus have written countless books on the topic, this surprisingly remains a hotly debated topic.

In 2015, an international survey asking clinicians, researchers, and people with lived experience were asked “what is mental health?” but found no consensus.

It’s also tempting to declare that “good mental health” is simply the absence of mental health conditions or illnesses (like clinical depression and anxiety) and negative feelings. However, when we think about physical health (mental health’s more popular sibling who has been getting all the attention until recently), this idea doesn’t hold up: a person who has no diseases or pain could still be said to have poor physical health if they’re not exercising, eating well, or sleeping enough. Also, if someone suffers from debilitating chronic pain, their goal might go beyond just being pain-free, but to be able to do the physical activities they want.

Likewise, we don’t simply want to avoid mental health conditions and negative feelings for the rest of our lives, which is unrealistic anyway; we want to be able to live good lives, whatever that might look like.

So rather than rambling on and losing your attention, let’s create a working definition and define “good mental health” as the ability to live a “good life” as we see fit, even if one doesn’t yet know what that would be.

This working definition of good mental health allows for a broader interpretation of mental health. It also considers different social and cultural values; we know that what is considered a “good life” differs person by person or in different social groups. The definition of a good life also changes as we go through different life stages (for example, staying up late and watching TV as a child to being able to travel as an adult). You and your mental health are a never-ending project.

Maybe that’s an unsatisfying answer, but for now, it’s helpful to think of our mental health in terms of how we live good lives regardless of whatever life throws our way.