What is Mental Health? And How You Can Improve Yours


If you suffer from mental illness, could you have good mental health or well-being? And if you don’t have any mental illness, do you have good mental health? We often believe not having a mental illness is a direct road to well-being. If so, then why do some people without mental illness have lower well-being, and why do others with mental illness have higher well-being?[1]

Take for instance Mark and Sara.

Mark is a 38-year-old married high school teacher. He is an avid football player and plays with his friends every week. Mark has never suffered from any serious mental health issues and describes his life as overall positive. Three weeks ago, Mark suffered a football injury. He is on crutches and would be out of football practice for the next three months. Mark is growing increasingly frustrated with his injury, his once healthy diet deteriorated, and he is spending less time with his wife and friends. Mark doesn’t have a mental illness but his mental health suffers.

Sara is a single 42-year-old nurse. Throughout her life, Sara encountered times of depression. At times she would feel depressed for weeks. She was diagnosed with depression eight years ago. With the help of a counselor, Sara learned how to manage her symptoms. She is aware when she starts to feel depressed and learned ways to improve her well-being. She volunteers her time at the community center, goes to Zumba classes twice a week, and has developed a healthy lifestyle that she is happy about. Sara experiences occasional depression and has good mental health.

What we can learn from Mark and Sara is mental health is more than not having a mental illness.[2] The World Health Organization [3] describes mental health as a state of well-being where individuals realize their own potential, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to their community. The question is, are people without mental illness leading a productive and healthy life? For many people, they do not function well or feel healthy.[2] Mental health is more than a life without mental illness; it is a holistic approach of physical, mental and social well-being.[3]

So what contributes to mental health, and how can you improve yours?

I came across studies [2,4] that outline different factors for mental health and found similar themes: emotional, psychological, social, physical, and spiritual. I found the 8 Dimensions of Wellness [5] as a good framework for mental health and ways you can improve it.

Physical Wellness
Caring for the fundamentals of your health. You’ve heard this before but having adequate sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise are essentials for general health. Likewise, avoid or reduce your alcohol, tobacco and drug intake. It is about finding healthy habits that fit your lifestyle and ability to accomplish it.

Social Wellness
We are social creatures [6], and having meaningful and healthy relationships is important for mental health.[7] The key here is “quality not quantity”. Develop meaningful relationships, have supportive social networks that give you a safe space where you’re accepted and supported. Connect yourself with your communities. Find causes that give you meaning and purpose. It can be anything from volunteering at events or community centers, taking care of the environment by joining the weekly beach clean up, or if you’re an animal lover, volunteering at pet shelters. Volunteering decreases loneliness and depression, and improves physical health.[8]

Emotional Wellness
The majority of us have experienced times of low-self esteem, self-doubt and a general sense of feeling low. We also know how these feelings and emotions impact our behavior. Being emotionally healthy involves optimism, your self-esteem and self-acceptance, and the ability to cope with feelings. This doesn’t have to be a 24/7 mindset. In fact, it’s probably more challenging than realistic especially after you encounter life’s “downs”. Allow yourself to be flexible, and find ways to help you cope with stress and build your resilience. Practicing self-care, knowing when to ask for help, connecting with your social groups, empathizing with others, and being realistic about expectations and time are ways you can develop your emotional health.

Intellectual Wellness
“An idle mind is a devil’s workshop”. This is one of my favorite quotes that immediately popped to mind. It means sitting down and not doing anything productive (idle) is not only harmful for you but also for society (devil). Avoid enrolling into the “devil’s workshop” by mentally stimulating your mind. Be curious, expand your knowledge and skills, be creative and explore new ideas and different perspectives. It involves your ability to think critically, reason and make responsible decisions.

Vocational Wellness
Not all of us are fortunate enough to work in a job that gives us satisfaction and meaning. It would be ideal but it may not pay the bills. Heck, as an astronomy enthusiast, you may not even have the skill set to be an astronomer. You need to be realistic in finding a career that gives you satisfaction and life enrichment while being in line with your goals, values and lifestyle. This takes planning and an active approach to knowing where you want to be and how to get there.

Environmental Wellness
The water bottles you use, the tissue paper you threw on the ground while nobody was looking, and the office bullying you see everyday is your interaction with your surroundings. Just as our environment impacts us, we impact it. You can grow your environmental awareness by understanding your relationship with the surroundings and environment you live in. Develop habits that allow you to be responsible and respectful of your natural and social environment.

Spiritual Wellness
The satisfaction we get from life doesn’t involve finishing that cheesecake you’ve been craving or buying a new pair of shoes you’ve been obsessing over. Life satisfaction is more than temporary satisfaction. It involves having meaning and purpose in life, and doing activities that are consistent with your beliefs and values. Spirituality is more than being religious. You can be spiritual and not religious. Spirituality involves finding harmony with the universe, having compassion to others, practicing gratitude and self-reflection. It is a holistic connection of your mind, body, and soul. Spirituality is different for everyone so find what speaks to you and work to develop it.

Financial Wellness
If those shoes you bought which you were obsessing about created a dent in your pocket then you need to reconsider your approach to finances. Financial health doesn’t mean having a large amount of money you can spend. It is your relationship with money, your skills to manage resources and live within your means. It is about short term and future planning and not present spending. Just as your finances are unique to you, it is unique for everyone else. Have an awareness of yours and others financial circumstances and needs.

Getting Started

Developing changes to your mental health begins with self-awareness.[9] Reflect on who you are as a person, and what you inspire to become and achieve. Think of your strengths and weaknesses and how you can work to develop it. Trying to accomplish change all at once is unrealistic and can negatively impact your mental health rather than improve it. Take it one step at a time. For example, focus on areas where you feel the most capable of achieving or areas where you feel you are lacking.

Improving your mental health is not a one-day event. It is a gradual and continuous process where you use your awareness to keep yourself in check while putting in the effort to make it happen. Make your process to better well-being fun and meaningful and not another dreaded to-do list to check off.

Mental health is more than not having a mental illness. It involves a healthy approach on your mind, body and your interactions with people and the world around you. It is your personalized approach to living life that allows you to be the best version of yourself within your potentials and circumstances.[9] Whether you are struggling with mental illness or not, know that there are areas in your life you can develop to improve your mental health for greater well-being.


[1] Benton, S. (2018, April). The difference between mental health and mental illness. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reaching-across-the-divide/201804/the-difference-between-mental-health-and-mental-illness
[2] Keyes, C. L. M. (2005). Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 73(3), 539-548.
[3] World Health Organization (2014, August). Mental health: A state of well-being.Retrieved from https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/
[4] Galderisi, S., Heinz, A., Kastrup, M., Beezhold, J., & Sartorius, N. (2015). Toward a new definition of mental health. World Psychiatry, 14(2), 231-233.
[5] 8 Dimensions of Wellness. (UMD). University of Maryland’s Your Guide to Living Well. Retrieved from https://umwellness.wordpress.com/8-dimensions-of-wellness/
[6]Young, S. N. (2008). The neurobiology of human social behavior: an important but neglected topic. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 33(5), 391-392.
[7] Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. USA: The Penguin Press.
[8] Watson, S. (2013, June 26). Volunteering may be good for body and mind. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428
[9] Stoewen, D. L. (2017). Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life. Canadian Veterinary Journal, 58, 861-862.  

Photo Credit: Pixaby

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