Mental health is not the absence of mental illness/ Mental illness is not the absence of mental health

It is possible to have symptoms of mental illness and still flourish in life. One study I read said that 17% of people with diagnosed mental illness (one out of 5 essentially) flourish in life. Conventional theory would tell you this is impossible. But this study (and many others) as well as many other new ideas about what it means to do well in life are detailed in a new book by Martin Seligman called “Flourish.” The book is revolutionary. The chapter on the treatment of depression is worth the price of the book by itself.

Equally startling: It is possible not to have symptoms of mental illness and not be emotionally healthy. (I know most people know that even if they dont know they know it.) We all know people like that. Some of them are our doctors.

Seligman is clear. Mental illness and mental health are not opposite ends of the same pole. They are related. The absence or presence of one can make the other one more difficult. But the enabling conditions of life are not the same as the absence of the disabling conditions of life.

Seligman points out the essential weakness of much treatment. Getting less weak is not the same as becoming stronger. And if you work towards well being strength even helps to prevent the effects of some disabling factors.

Those who speak about recovery already know some of this. Seligman points out the following as the foundations of well being.

Positive emotion- the experience of positive emotions such as hope, gratitude, pleasure, happiness etc.

Engagement- Having things in life that engage and absorb you. Some psychologists have talked about this in the concept of “flow.”

Relationships- having positive relationships. Both caring and being cared for.

Meaning-feeling like life has meaning and purpose, that there is something bigger than you that gives you a sense of completion and direction.

Achievement-having the experience of competence and effectiveness.

These, according to Seligman, are the primary enabling conditions of life that move us towards well being and flourishing in life. It is in the pursuit of these things we find better life and perhaps even more importantly the resources and strength to deal with life at its worse.


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