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Concepts of Mental and Social Wellbeing

Concepts of mental wellbeing

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) first introduced the concept in 1948, many different definitions of mental wellbeing have been presented. The concept is pertinent to a wide range of disciplines, all of which have a slightly different take on it relating to underlying beliefs, attitudes and practices. Whilst mental health terminology is not yet used consistently, FPH uses the term ‘mental health’ to describe the field which encompasses mental illness/disorder, mental wellbeing and all other states of mental health.

Some common definitions in the health literature include:

"Mental health… is 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." (1)

Resilience – as in "being able to cope with the normal stress of life" – is an important component of most definitions of mental wellbeing, with great relevance for the prevention of mental illness. Working productively and fruitfully is an important component from the point of view of economists, and in some studies is regarded as the primary component.

‘Feeling good and functioning well’ (2)

This succinct definition covers the components of mental wellbeing as perceived primarily by positive psychologists. It does not, as the WHO definition above does, define what wellbeing might be for (eg. being productive and contributing).  It includes subjective/hedonic/affective wellbeing (feeling good) as well as psychological wellbeing (functioning well).

The latter covers the personal attributes and capacities, which have been observed since the time of Aristotle and before, to increase happiness both in self and other. It includes the development of personal potential as in the WHO definition above, as well as feeling confident and capable, being self-aware and self-accepting, having control over one’s life and environment (agency), having a sense of purpose, having the capacity for autonomous action and having the capacity for positive relationships with others.

Concepts of social wellbeing and its relationship to mental wellbeing

Social wellbeing, or the lack of it, is familiar to public health professionals in the context of social and income equality, social capital, social trust, social connectedness and social networks.

These concepts are set primarily in the context of social policy and social interactions at community or societal level. Mental wellbeing, as previously defined, includes another aspect of social wellbeing – good relationships with others on a one-to-one, small group or family level.

All these aspects of social wellbeing are known to have a profound effect on mental health and wellbeing individually and collectively. What is not so widely appreciated is the reverse relationship.

Mental wellbeing includes the capacity to make health and happiness enhancing relationships with others. People with mental wellbeing know themselves and their needs, have clear boundaries, relate to others using the skills of emotional literacy and accept and manage conflict without manipulation or coercion.

People with mental wellbeing are also generous, wise and compassionate. They make good decisions on behalf of others. It therefore follows that promoting the mental wellbeing of all, particularly of those who are in positions of power, is an important approach to preventing social inequality and unhealthy policy.

Mental and social wellbeing are thus closely interrelated but distinct concepts, which often appear muddled together in the literature.

FPH’s concept of mental and social wellbeing addresses this bi-directional relationship, defining mental wellbeing as the attributes of the individual and social wellbeing as the attributes of ‘others’ collectively. In this framework, mental and social wellbeing can be seen as follows:

Mental wellbeing includes the capacity to:

  • realise our abilities, live a life with purpose and meaning, and make a positive contribution to our communities
  • form positive relationships with others, and feel connected and supported
  • experience peace of mind, contentment, happiness and joy
  • cope with life’s ups and downs and be confident and resilient
  •  take responsibility for oneself and for others as appropriate.

It is:

  • more than the absence of mental illness/disorder; it represents the positive side of mental health and can be achieved by people with a diagnosis of mental disorder
  • inextricably linked with individuals’ physical wellbeing
  • inextricably linked, as both cause and effect, with social wellbeing

Individual mental wellbeing is personal and therefore unique. It cannot be given – it needs to be developed by each individual for themselves, but others both individually and collectively can support or hinder this process.

For most individuals, the direction of travel includes the development of the skills and attributes of:

  • psychological wellbeing (self-confidence, agency, autonomy, positive focus and optimism);
  • emotional intelligence (relationship skills); and
  • the capacity to experience happiness and contentment (sometimes called subjective wellbeing or life satisfaction).
Social wellbeing is:
  • the basis for social equality, social capital, social trust
  • the antidote to racism, stigma, violence and crime.

It depends on:

  • the sum of individual mental wellbeing in a group, community or society
  • the quality of government – local, organisational, national and international
  • the quality of services and provision of support for those in need
  • the fair distribution of resources including income
  • the norm with regard to interpersonal relationships in a group, community or society, including respect for others and their needs, compassion and empathy, and authentic interaction.

Hierarchically held power in families, communities, workplaces, schools or government is particularly potent in this regard, and respectful, compassionate, authentic government, families and organisations are important in the creation of collective mental wellbeing.

Both mental and social wellbeing are also dependent on:

  • heading 6 the quality of the environment – natural and built cultural and social norms.

1) WHO. Strengthening mental health promotion. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2001: Fact sheet, No. 220.

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2) Aked J, Marks N, Cordon C, and Thompson, S. (2008). Five Ways to Wellbeing: The evidence. London. NEF.

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