Authentic Self-Esteem and Well-Being, X: Mental Health

Part 10: What is mental health and well-being?

Posted May 15, 2019

Most of the time when we talk about wellness, we focus on its physical dimensions. For instance, if someone asks how we are doing and we are not physically ill, we are likely to say “fine” or “well.” However, there is much more to health and well-being than that. For example, many people who are under stress, feel depressed, experience anxiety, or have a mental illness are physically healthy. Yet, they would be unlikely to feel well. Fortunately, modern medicine is beginning to understand that health is more than just the absence of symptoms and so is psychology.

The field of mental health has made many advances concerning how to define mental illness. Clinicians rely on them to make diagnoses and to offer treatment. However, we are only beginning to define mental health or well-being. Corey Keyes’ concept of flourishing (2002) is very useful in this regard because it describes three levels of nonphysical well-being: suffering, languishing, and flourishing. The difference between them applies to many living things, even plants. Sometimes they suffer in a garden and may even die for the lack of nutrients or water. Other times, a plant may survive through an entire season but languish enough to not bear fruit or flowers. Finally, healthy plants sprout, grow, blossom, or flourish year after year. She and her colleagues estimated that less than a quarter of us are flourishing in our personal and relational lives.

In other words, most of us would benefit by increasing our mental health or well-being. Authentic self-esteem, as defined throughout this series of blogs, comes from two factors, namely, a relationship between competence and worthiness. Since facing the challenges of living in ways that demonstrate one’s competence and worth as a person promote growth, authentic self-esteem can help us flourish instead of just languish or even suffer.

Carol Ryff and Burton Singer (1998) found mental health and psychological well-being to involve three areas of life. All of then involve self-esteem. The emotional dimension of well-being depends on two things. One is the degree of control a person has over his or her emotions and expressing them. The other concerns how often we experience positive emotions, such as joy, gratitude, love, and so on. Dealing with life’s challenges in ways that are both effective (competence) and that demonstrate one’s integrity as a person (worthiness) usually requires emotional control and often is source of important positive experiences. For instance, doing the “right thing” when called upon usually works this way. In other words “feeling good by doing good,” as I said in the title of one of my books on authentic self-esteem, reflects emotional well-being (Mruk, 2019).

Next Ryff and Burton describe includes six dimensions of psychological well-being necessary for mental health. They are accepting ourselves, having purpose in life, experiencing positive relations with others, mastering our environments, growing as a person, and having a reasonable degree of autonomy in life, which involves the ability to make choices. Self-esteem is a part of this dimension of well-being because the first three involve some form of worth or worthiness and the last three require some degree of competence, just like authentic self-esteem.

For instance, accepting ourselves involves seeing our good or worthy qualities, not just the bad ones. Having purpose in life makes it more worth living, as those without it often languish, suffer, or even give up. Positive relationships with others affirm our worth as an individual and no or poor relationships can bring pain. From infancy through aging, mastering our environment involves overcoming obstacles, which involves competence. Growth usually means taking advantage of appropriate risks, which competence to be successful. Autonomy means making choices, but they still depend on our competence to actualize them.

The last dimension Ryff and Burton described is social well-being. This type of well-being involves relationships in a larger sense because it requires being a part of a community and includes making worthwhile contributions to it. Some people see this aspect of well-being as more spiritual in nature. However, whether religious or secular, research suggests that connecting to something larger that one’s own life or family, such as a community, a cause, or a belief system, may help people better deal with such things as stress, setbacks, and loss (Masters and Begin, 1992). Being connected to the greater human community in this way, for example, usually affirms one’s sense of worth as a person. That support, in turn, often increases an individual’s ability to competently deal with a challenge instead of avoiding or succumbing to it.

Competently facing life’s challenges in ways that are worthy of a mature human being is the heart of authentic self-esteem. Living that way over time also leads to higher levels of mental health and well-being.


Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 207- 222.

Masters, K., & Bergin, A. (1992). Religious orientation and mental health. In J. Schumaker (Ed.), Religion and mental health (pp. 221- 232). New York: Oxford.

Mruk, C. J. (2019).  Feeling good by doing good: A guide to authentic self-esteem. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 1– 28.