But what exactly do mental health, wellness and wholeness mean? When you think about it, it’s hard to pin down exact definitions for these terms.
And the definitions are continually changing for every individual because they are a process, a movement, and not static. In a way, we make our own definitions of what mental health, wellness and wholeness means for each of us.
To me, these are more than pretty words. They are the very underpinnings of this blog. So I’m going to take the plunge and describe what, in my view, mental health, wellness and wholeness really are.
What is mental health?
It is always easier to define mental illness than mental health. There are whole libraries filled with books about mental illnesses, but hardly any books on what being mentally healthy really means.
And there is no general agreement as to what exactly mental health is. There are competing professional theories, as well as cultural differences, subjective assessments and value judgments in the mix.
But one agreement is that mental health is not the simple absence of mental illness, and that mental illness is not the simple absence of mental health.
In 1999 Surgeon General David Satcher, in his report on Mental Health, defined it as,
The successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity.
Mental health and mental illness are not polar opposites, according to the Surgeon General’s report, but points on a continuum, where an individual’s mental health may have many different possible values. At one end of the continuum is mental health as “successful mental functioning. ” In the middle are “mental health problems.” And at the other end is mental illness, with “impaired functioning.”
Mental health can be defined as attitudes and thoughts that lead to actions
Perhaps there can be no single definition of mental health. But there are signs that one is mentally healthy. Mental health, much more than physical health, can be defined by your attitudes and thoughts that lead to actions. It’s as much what you do as what you think. Among the generally agreed-upon signs that a person is mentally healthy are:
- Able to use their cognitive and emotional capabilities
- Has a feeling of being capable and competent
- Is able to work productively
- Is able to handle normal levels of stress
- Has the resilience and flexibility to recover, or “bounce back,” from difficult situations
- Is able to function in society
- Is able to contribute to community life
- Is able to maintain satisfying relations
- Is able to lead an independent life
- Meets the ordinary demands of everyday life
- Has a subjective feeling of well-being
- Has the ability to enjoy life
Not all these signs need to be present for you to be considered mentally healthy. Each of us makes our own definition of what mental health is. Remember that mental health is a continuum, and these signs are milestones along the way. And remember that mental health is not the complete absence of mental illness. In the overview, it is the ability to function successfully, have satisfying relationships, and maintain a reasonable feeling of well-being.
What is mental wellness?
In my research for this post, I looked at well over 50 internet sites that were classified under “wellness.” Only two even mentioned mental health. Most of the rest emphasized physical wellness, and quite a few were full of gimmicks and hype for products from spa treatments to shower heads (really!).
The best definition of wellness that I could find was by Dr. Jane Myers of the University of North Carolina. She says,
Wellness refers to a holistic approach in which mind, body, and spirit are integrated. It is a way of life oriented toward optimal health and well-being in which body, mind, and spirit are integrated in a purposeful manner with a goal of living life more fully… Wellness is more than the absence of disease, [or] a state defined as “health.” [It] incorporates a concern for optimal functioning.
Wellness is a relatively new paradigm in health care, and the subject of mental wellness is newer still. The study of characteristics that make up mental health is called Positive Psychology, which was introduced only in 1998. Mental wellness in counseling and therapy is newer still, being introduced in 2001.
Being mentally well is connected to being physically and spiritually well
By its very essence, mental wellness cannot be totally separated from physical and spiritual wellness. The following list was compiled by Dr. Myers as a general guide to what it is to live in wellness. Note that many of the points deal with mental health in some way:
- Thinking. Being mentally active and open-minded. The ability to be creative and experimental. Having a sense of curiosity. The ability to apply problem-solving strategies to social conflicts.
- Emotions. Being aware of or in touch with your feelings. The ability to express appropriately positive and negative feelings.
- Control. Beliefs about your competence, confidence, and personal mastery. Beliefs that you can usually achieve the goals you set out for yourself.
- Work. Satisfaction with your work. Feeling that your skills are used appropriately. Feeling you can manage one’s workload. Feeling a sense of job security. Feeling appreciated in the work you do.
- Positive Humor. Being able to laugh at your own mistakes. The ability to use humor to accomplish even serious tasks.
- Leisure. Satisfaction with your time spent in leisure. Feeling that your skills are used appropriately.
- Stress Management. On-going self-assessment of your coping resources. The ability to organize and manage resources such as time, energy, and setting limits.
- Self- Worth. Accepting who and what you are, positive qualities along with imperfections. A sense of being genuine within yourself and with others.
- Realistic Beliefs. Ability to process information and perceive reality accurately. The absence of persistent irrational beliefs and thoughts and need for perfection.
- Friendship. Social relationships that involve a connection with others individually or in community, but which do not have a marital, sexual, or familial commitment. Having a capacity to trust others. Having empathy for others. Feeling understood by others.
- Love. The ability to be intimate, trusting, self-disclosing with another. The ability to give as well as express affection with significant others and to accept others without conditions.
- Spirituality. Personal beliefs and behaviors practiced as part of the recognition that we are more than the material aspects of mind and body. Belief in a higher power. Hope and optimism. Practice of worship, prayer, and/or meditation; purpose in life. Compassion for others. Moral values. Transcendence (a sense of oneness with the universe).
- Gender Identity. Satisfaction with and feeling supported in one’s gender. Ability to be androgynous.
- Cultural Identity. Satisfaction with and feeling supported in one’s cultural identity. Cultural assimilation.
- Self-Care. Taking responsibility for one’s wellness through self-care and safety habits that are preventive in nature.
- Nutrition. Eating a nutritionally balanced diet. Maintaining a normal weight (within 15% of the ideal).
- Exercise. Engaging in sufficient physical activity through exercise or in your work to keep in good physical condition.
General Feeling of Well-Being
- Perceived Wellness. The extent to which you believe you have achieved wellness in all areas, or total wellness. Your estimate of your total wellness.
- Perceived Safety. The extent to which you believe you are safe in your home, neighborhood, and community, and the extent to which you feel safe from harm by terrorists.
- Context. The extent to which your wellness is influenced, in a conscious manner, by individual, institutional, and global contexts, and the extent to which you are aware of and intentional in responding positively to changes in wellness over time.
Again, these are signs along life’s way and not an absolute checklist that measures success or failure. You may not even agree with them all. Choose the ones you want to aspire to and make them your milestones along the mental wellness continuum.
Mental Wholeness Is a Process
Wholeness is a concept that has one meaning and many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer to what wholeness really is.
We all have a deep yearning for wholeness, yet it is a concept that defies description. What is it to be whole? Whole in what way? Is wholeness the same for every individual? There are more questions than answers.
We all have been broken by life, fragmented by all the things that happen along the way. Mental illness, in particular, breaks us not only internally, but externally from friends, family and the world. One of the most devastating feelings we can have is that we are so broken that we cannot pick up the pieces, that we are not moving forward in life, or are even moving backward.
It is best to think of mental wholeness not as a state, but as a process. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, taught us that the process of healing and wholeness comes from the balancing our lives. None of us are entirely whole, and none of us can be entirely whole, but wholeness is a level of perfection that we should be continually striving for. The pieces can be put back together and life can move forward.
The process requires letting go, change and growth. Jung says,
The realization of the self … leads to a fundamental conflict, to a real suspension between opposites…, and to an approximate state of wholeness that lacks perfection. … The individual may strive after perfection … but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.
If we think of mental health, mental wellness and mental wholeness as processes rather than being static, our lives can be filled with a sense of accomplishment and happiness with our current state of being. Remember that mental health, wellness and wholeness are not the absence of mental illness, but a movement along a continuum from having impaired functioning to successful mental functioning. We may be broken, we may have setbacks, but we are capable, every one of us, of living a happy, fulfilling life!
What do you think?
If you’ve stayed with me through these 2026 words, you will know that there are no easy definitions of mental health, wellness and wholeness. I have presented what I think the definitions are. Now it’s your turn!
- How would you define mental health, wellness and wholeness?
- Do you agree with the statements in this post?
- Do you agree that they are processes rather than a fixed state of mind?
As always, your comments are welcome!
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Resources used in this post:
Bessinger, Donivan. (2000). Carl G. Jung: A Brief Introduction to His Ideas. Retrieved from Journey into Wholeness Web site: http://users.aol.com/journeywh/jwjung.htm
Myers, Jane. (2004, April 23). Wellness Models, Assessment, Research. Retrieved August 4, 2008 from University of North Carolina at Greensboro Web site: http://www.uncg.edu/~jemyers/wellness/docs/wellness.htm
Satcher, David. (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General 1999. Retrieved July 29, 2008 from US Department of Health and Human Services Web site: http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/cre/ch1_scope.asp
Mental Wellness Information, by Dr. Ron Sterling