According to the World Health Organization, health is not merely the absence of disease.
Similarly, mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. “Mental health” encompasses a great deal of concepts pertaining to the human experience. The term doesn’t really refer to a single state of being, but rather to a continuum of conditions ranging from mental wellness on one end of the spectrum all the way to mental illness on the other end.
Yes, mental wellness and mental illness are two ends of a spectrum. Does this mean, though, that well-being is an all-or-nothing idea? That if someone experiences mental illness to any degree of severity, he or she does not nor cannot experience wellness? Absolutely not!
Well-being is attainable by all, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of mental wellness and mental illness.
Well-being is not the opposite of “ill-being.” It’s not the opposite of anything. Well-being stands alone in that it isn’t the presence or lack of any condition. Well-being also stands with everything else because it can exist alongside anything.
What, exactly, IS well-being? Psychologists have been studying the concept for a long time, and they will continue to do so indefinitely. It’s at the center of a movement known as positive psychology. It has been the focus of spiritual gurus of various traditions and cultures for millennia. This is a really good thing for humanity, and I hope the quest continues. Thankfully, though, we don’t have to wait for the final results to be in in order to fully experience well-being.
Simply, and literally, put, well-being is the state of being well. That is rather vague, and this vagueness is the beauty of the term. Following the concept set forth by the World Health Organization, being well is more than the absence of illness. We can struggle, we can suffer, and we can still experience well-being. I wrestle with anxiety, and I deal with bipolar I disorder. These things can be miserable, yet through it all I can honestly claim to experience well-being.
This is possible because we are in charge of our own state of well-being. There are numerous things that constitute well-being: gratitude, happiness, outlook, interests, actions, use of our strengths. This, of course, is but a partial list of attributes that contribute to wellness. What is fantastic is that these are things that originate from within each of us. None of these things is dependent upon external circumstances or on having perfect mental health.
Consider happiness as an example. It is a state of contentment that is within everyone’s reach because it has little to do with external things and everything to do with our inner attitudes and belief systems. Study after study indicates that external things don’t bring us lasting happiness. As long as our basic needs are met, an abundance of material things just doesn’t increase lasting inner happiness. How we think about things is what brings contentment. Fair enough.
But what about someone who has a mental illness? Can he or she be happy? Absolutely yes. Hey, doesn’t happiness come from within? And what if someone’s “within” is ill? How does it work? It works because wellness is not merely the absence of illness. We all have the ability to be happy. We can all choose what we focus on and we can choose what our priorities are. Attending to our own values and priorities is a big part of feeling happiness and contentment.
I’ll use a personal example to illustrate. As I mentioned, I have bipolar I disorder. Simplified (over-simplified, really), this involves states of mania alternating with states of depression. By its nature, the mania definitely contributes to a feeling of euphoria. Depression, though, is not famous for its feeling of happiness. One would think that anyone experiencing depression, whether as a part of bipolar disorder or on its own, would not feel happy. To be sure, as I know firsthand, it’s hard to feel cheery and bubbly during depression. Often, things feel downright terrible. Yet, it is entirely possible to find things that make us happy. Sometimes it absolutely can’t be something huge, a big-picture thing that miraculously cures depression. It just doesn’t work that way. However, when I’m depressed, I look for little things each day that either bring happiness or remind me of times that I am happy, and doing this helps. So, while I experience happiness differently during times of depression, I still can find the ability within myself to bring a degree of contentment.
Further, well-being doesn’t just mean “happiness.” It involves many different things that contribute to our health and our lives in a positive way. Well-being is a way of being in life and within ourselves. It’s for everyone, with or without mental illness. It’s an inherent power possessed by every human being, and we need to trust our own ability—and the ability of others—to experience wellness in any circumstances.
What does well-being mean to you? What little steps can you take every day to achieve and maintain it?