The Characteristics of Mental Health

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It has always been easier to define mental illnesses than to define mental health. In the United States, the American Psychiatric Association has traditionally been the organization to define mental disorders (beginning as early as 1917 when it was known as The Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions of the Insane).

More recently, many have recognized that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. Even though many people do not have a diagnosable mental disorder, it is clear that some are mentally healthier than others.

What Is Mental Health?

The World Health Organization states that mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. It involves a state of well-being in which people are able to cope with the normal stresses they face in daily life. Mental health allows people to recognize their own abilities, work productively, and make meaningful contributions to their communities.


Mental health refers not only to emotional well-being but also to how people think and behave. There are a number of different factors that have been found to influence mental health.

Life Satisfaction

A person's ability to enjoy life is frequently used as an indicator of mental health and wellness. It is often defined as the degree to which a person enjoys the most important aspects of their life. 

Some factors that have been found to play an important role in life satisfaction include the absence of feeling ill, good relationships, a sense of belonging, being active in work and leisure, a sense of achievement and pride, positive self-perceptions, a sense of autonomy, and feelings of hope.


The ability to bounce back from adversity has been referred to as "resilience." People who are resilient also tend to have a positive view of their ability to cope with challenges and seek out social support when they need it. Those who are more resilient are better able to not only cope with stress but to thrive even in the face of it.


Social support is important to good mental health. Loneliness has been shown to have a number of negative health effects. It has been linked to problems with both physical and mental health including cardiovascular disease, depression, memory problems, drug misuse, alcoholism, and altered brain function.

Decreases in social support caused by life changes such as going to college, facing social adversity, changing jobs, or getting divorced can have a negative impact on mental health.

Fortunately, research suggests that it is not necessarily the number of supportive connections you have that it is the most important; it is the quality of these relationships that matters. 


Having rigid expectations can sometimes create added stress. Emotional flexibility may be just as important as cognitive flexibility. Mentally healthy people experience a range of emotions and allow themselves to express these feelings. Some people shut off certain feelings, finding them to be unacceptable.

Lack of psychological flexibility has been linked to some types of psychopathology, while research suggests that increase flexibility is connected to better life balance and improved resilience.

Challenges to Mental Health

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that an estimated one in five U.S. adults experiences a mental health problem each year. There are a number of risk factors that can increase the likelihood that a person may experience poor mental health.

Risks to mental health can include:

  • Discrimination
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Low income
  • Medical illness
  • Poor access to health services
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Poor social skills 
  • Social inequalities
  • Substance use

Some of the factors that can help offer protection against poor mental health including having supportive social relationships, strong coping skills, opportunities for engagement in the community, and physical and psychological security.

How to Stay Mentally Healthy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that some of the ways that you can promote and maintain mental health include: 

  • Engaging in regular physical exercise 
  • Getting adequate sleep  
  • Helping others 
  • Learning new coping skills to manage stress 
  • Staying connected to other people 
  • Trying to keep a positive outlook on life 

It is also important to be able to seek help if you are having difficulties. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional if you want help improving your mental health or addressing a psychological problem.

A Word From Verywell

Mental health is much more than simply the absence of illness. It is important to note, however, that there are many factors that determine mental health and overall well-being. Individual factors play an important part in this, but social, environmental, and financial circumstances also interact dynamically with these individual factors to either enhance or threaten mental health.

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10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Taylor, James, 1977. Secret O' Life Album: JT; Professional experience of 25 years as a practicing clinical psychologist.