“No man is happy who does not think himself so.”

-Marcus Aurelius

It might seem that all this discussion on what mental health is, is getting a bit too complicated. Why don’t we just say that happiness with one’s own life is being mentally healthy? It seems like a really reasonable explanation. If people are content with their life and perceive their life as good then they are not very likely to suffer from any mental illnesses. There are some complications that come with this explanation though.

Mental Health as Subjective Happiness

The concept of happiness as mental health is really simple. The problem is that it is too simple. Science doesn’t always go for the simple definitions. A definition must be well demarcated with scientific terms for it to have any validity. Until very recently, the following was the definition of ‘a happy man’.

young, healthy, well-educated, well paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry free, religious and married with high self esteem, a good job, morals, and modest aspirations

(Wilson W: Correlates of avowed happiness. Psychol Bull 1967; 67:294–306)

It is a bit surprising to think that until the early 1970s, this was the working definition of a happy man in the scientific circles. You can see that some of the words are in italics and those are the terms which have been proven to be wrong over time with researches.

In recent times, more extensive efforts have been made to better define this state of subjective happiness. A question that arises is that do our surroundings make us happy or does our perception of our surroundings make us happy?

The answer is that it is our perception of our surroundings that make us happy. Scientists were startled when they found that a significant amount of people believed AIDS had improved their quality of life. Along the same lines, mean life satisfaction is higher in economically challenged countries like Brazil compared to rich nations like Japan or Germany.


One of the major drawbacks of this definition is that ‘being happy’ may not always mean ‘being healthy’. The ‘high’ that people get after taking drugs makes us happy but that doesn’t mean that taking drugs is healthy. Fulfilling a craving for food or alcohol may give us temporary satisfaction but that doesn’t make either of the things healthy. Alas, it seems that this concept although simple, doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny yet.

To be continued…