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Positive mental health - the new happiness?

Author: G McLaughlin
Published: Aug 16 2012

To pinpoint what it takes to be truly happy would be to solve the riddle of the ages.  Many have tried, and before I say that few have succeeded, it is worth considering the many who claim to have discovered some kind of enlightenment and serenity.  This tends to be of a spiritual nature, and brings to mind Eastern practices such as meditation.  Indeed, mindfulness-based practices have become widespread around the world in the mental health context.

The importance of happiness is increasingly being appreciated more in Western Culture, with recent surveys like the Oxford Happiness Survey ( and news that the USA is on its way to implementing a "happiness index"  demonstrating that governments are increasingly appreciating the importance of happy citizens.

Maslow’s 'Hierarchy of Needs' model

Happiness, few would argue, is dependent not only on one’s situation, but also on how one looks at their situation; as the old saying goes, one man’s dream is another man’s nightmare.  There are however, certain basic conditions that must first be met, and, to borrow from Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ model (pictured), the first of these are basic needs including food, water and air.  More complex ‘needs’ however are more difficult to conceptualise, and are therefore hard to define. Needs such as creativity and spontaneity might easily be ignored, and it is all too easy to see how a person with a repetitive job (or none at all), a banal routine and bills to pay might neglect or simply feel unable to meet these needs.  Short of changing the entire make up of Western Society as we know it, it may seem that, for some, the pursuit of happiness is a futile one.  It is – it has to be – possible to both live the modern lifestyle and maintain positive mental health.  I believe that the current prioritisation of mental health at a governmental level, at least in the UK and Ireland, indicates that we are becoming more self aware of these issues.

I believe also that this shift indicates a decrease in the stigma around mental health.  Stigma still remains however, and this needs to be acknowledged in order for it to decrease.  In my opinion, there are two kinds of people – those who know they need help, and those who don’t yet know they need help.  This may sound pessimistic, but if anything I think that this is a positive idea overall, as few would deny that they at times need to at least take guidance or inspiration from others.  This is what I mean by ‘help’.  Breaking down the stigma around seeking help needs to happen on a societal level, and I believe that the surge in online forums like indicates a positive shift towards sharing one’s problems, and ultimately an understanding that, to borrow from another cliché, no man (or woman) is an island.  We exist within wider social systems and sharing with and supporting others, in my opinion, are central to maintaining positive mental health.  It is positive mental health that happiness refers to.

Promisingly, as well as the investment governments seem to be making in mental health resources, the entire infrastructure of mental health services is undergoing an overhaul at the moment.  The Bamford Review in Northern Ireland (, and the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme in England ( promise to make services more easily available, and they represent legislative changes in Mental Health and Capacity Laws.

About the author:

G McLaughlin is a mental health worker in Ireland. He is currently completing a Masters in Applied Psychology, and has an interest i general health and wellbeing. As well as hosting, a health and wellbeing forum, he hosts a BMI Calculator site, which indicates Body Mass Index for both adults and children (BMIINDICATOR.COM). The link between body and mind is very real, and the benefit of maintaining a healthy BMI cannot be underestimated.

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