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Tara Thiagarajan Ph.D.
Tara Thiagarajan Ph.D.

Our Collective Mental Well-Being

Understanding the spectrum from clinically at risk to thriving.

Source: Rawpixel/iStock

As a global population, we exhibit a huge diversity in our state of mental health and well-being. Although there is some data on the prevalence of disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction (see Our World in Data) that provide an indication of how many people are suffering from serious challenges to their mental health, there is currently no big picture understanding of the overall mental well-being of our global population.

So the question is, as a planet are we thriving or just enduring? Are we succeeding or just managing? How many of us are at risk of mental health challenges that could have severe consequences for our lives? And, perhaps most importantly, what factors make a difference to where people fall along this spectrum of mental well-being?

What does it mean to be mentally well?

A useful definition comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) [1] who define mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Achieving these depends on a whole host of cognitive, emotional, social, and physical functions that need to be operating in line with, or beyond, the demands of any situation you face. Cognitive functions like being flexible when faced with change, emotional functions like being able to regulate your emotions, and social functions like being able to build close relationships, to name a few. However, when one or more of these functions become impaired, our mental well-being suffers and, in the most extreme cases, symptoms of mental health disorders can start to arise.

Mental well-being is not the same as happiness or satisfaction.

Human life has always been rife with challenges from loss of loved ones or loss of employment, to war or natural disasters. It is therefore very important to understand that mental well-being is not the same as happiness or life satisfaction. Rather it is the mental capacity to handle and navigate life’s challenges effectively. One can be deeply saddened and dissatisfied with life’s circumstances and yet mentally well. On the other hand, if feelings of sadness spiral out of control preventing you from being a functioning member of society, this indicates something more serious.

A spectrum from clinically disordered to thriving.

Some of us are better equipped to handle life’s challenges than others and our mental well-being falls along a wide spectrum from clinically at risk to thriving. Measuring how the global population is distributed along this spectrum is key to understanding the border between mental health and ill health, and the factors that influence why some people slide towards mental ill-health.

 Sapien Labs
Figure 1: Overall Mental Wellbeing.
Source: Sapien Labs

Our ongoing study using a tool called the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) provides us a preliminary view. The MHQ scores people along 47 different dimensions of mental well-being and assigns them to a level of mental well-being from “Clinical,” through to “Thriving.” What the data shows us so far (see Figure 1, n = 1017) is that 14 percent of the population sampled were clinical or at risk, whilst only 10 percent were thriving.

 Sapien Labs
Figure 2 - Mental wellbeing by age.
Source: Sapien Labs

Data looking across different age brackets (see Figure 2) shows that those aged 18 to 24 had the lowest mental well-being (only 29 percent were thriving compared to 65 percent of those aged above 55), an alarming statistic that speaks to the growing crisis among young people today.

Generating large-scale shifts in population well-being.

The benefit of understanding population well-being is two-fold. Firstly, you can identify at-risk groups or populations most in need of care and support. Secondly, by delving a bit deeper, you can start to untangle the multiple risk and protective factors that underpin why some subgroups and populations have lower mental well-being than others. What is it about their experiences or environment that might be playing a role? And by addressing these, you have the ability not only to change the mental well-being of people on an individual level, you have the potential to induce large-scale shifts in population well-being which could benefit the lives of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people [2].

Want to know your mental well-being score?

The Mental Health Quotient or MHQ is an online assessment tool that can give you a sense of your overall mental well-being. It has been developed by Sapien Labs, a not-for-profit organization, to map the diverse landscape of mental health and ill-health across a large cross-section of the global population. Click here to complete your MHQ assessment.


[1] World Health Organization. (‎2005)‎. Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice.

[2] Huppert FA. (2004). A Population Approach to Positive Psychology: The Potential for Population Interventions to Promote wellbeing and Prevent Disorder. In: Positive psychology in practice. Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc: 693-709.

About the Author
Tara Thiagarajan Ph.D.

Tara Thiagarajan, Ph.D., is the Founder and Chief Scientist at Sapien Labs, which researches brain activity and its relation to mental health.

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