A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?


Wellbeing is a sustained sense of value in oneself, the world, and life. But when we take a microscope to it, what actually makes up wellbeing? Below are some of the core features of mental health. Not everyone poses each of these attributes, of course. What are some of your strongest abilities? How can you foster these abilities in yourself?

  1. The Capacity to Work - this does not necessarily refer to your ability to hold a 9-to-5 but rather the sense that there is something that you do with your time that is meaningful. This could be a hobby, volunteer work, a job, or caring for a family member. If you don't have that now, what do you envision it might be?
  2. The Capacity to Love - our ability to have an authentic relationship with another person or to experience devotion towards someone's wellbeing even if it sometimes comes at a cost to our own.
  3. The Capacity to Play - the enjoyment of actively participating in something fun like playing sports, dancing, singing, or actual play. All mammals play and it is probably an essential part of who we are.
  4. Feeling Safe in a Relationship - as young children some of us learn that the world can be a dangerous place and this understanding can persist into adulthood. We all need another person with whom we can feel truly safe. Research has shown that if we did not feel that way with our parents/families as children the two things that can start to change that are a partner relationship that lasts at least five years or a relationship with a therapist that lasts at least two years.
  5. Self-Efficacy - a sense that you have control over some aspects of your life. You might start determining your level of self-efficacy by asking "how many of the things in my life are happening because I want them to happen?"
  6. Identity - a feeling that you know who you are and can recognize both the great and not-so-great things about you. This is also a sense of comfort in our bodies or "in our own skin."
  7. Resilience - our ability to make it through difficult experiences (which is something that we have all done).
  8. Self-Esteem - this is not just feeling good about ourselves. It's a balance between being kind to ourselves but also knowing what our strengths and limitations are. We need to know what's valuable about ourselves and how we can use those things to move towards our goals.
  9. Values - a sense of moral integrity. We may feel like we have an inner compass that guides us toward what we feel is right, kind, and just. What do you value above all else?
  10. Emotional Flexibility - our ability to not only be okay with but to enjoy the variety of emotions (and thoughts) that we experience. We are creatures that can feel love, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, joy, disgust, etc. We can savor these emotions and embrace them.
  11. Awareness of Others - when we can recognize that other people have lives, thoughts, and intentions separate from our own, we can experience something entirely outside of ourselves.
  12. Balance between Togetherness and Separateness - we can be like porcupines on a cold night: we come together for warmth but then pull apart when we start to prick each other (and then get cold and come together for warmth again). What's the "sweet spot" for you in between these two opposed ideas?
  13. Feeling Alive - this often comes from a sense of enthusiasm or vitality for living. It can also mean feeling like you are embracing your authentic self and living the life that feels right and genuine for you.
  14. Acceptance - there are always things in life that are painful and unchangeable. That is inevitable. When we can grieve the losses associated with that and begin to move on we encourage an essential part of our mental health.

What struck you on this list? Are there several skills with which you are particularly strong? Which skills would you like to work on strengthening? Remember that wellbeing is, by definition, a process and not a state of being. Therefore, we are all striving towards greater wellbeing together.

Note: this post is based off of the ideas of the brilliant Nancy McWilliams. To see her talk on this subject, go here.

Next time: Building Hope