So what the heck is mental health, exactly?
In short, mental health can be thought of as a general experience (meaning most but not all of the time) of personal wellbeing.
Just as a physically healthy person may get the flu from time to time and still be considered healthy, a mentally healthy person will experience times of emotional/psychological distress on occasion.
Mental health is the experience of the self as both consistent and flexible, and the experience of life as relatively stable and satisfying.
I like to use a tree as a mental health metaphor. A tree has a stable trunk and flexible branches, which can bend and sway in response to the environment without breaking.
A mentally healthy individual is one with strong and stable core values (such as honesty, respect, and reciprocity to name a few of the top ten) and identity (such as democrat, teacher, and father for example) who can bend his or her personal preferences in response to the social environment without breaking.
Or to put it another way, a healthy person can surrender one type of preference in service to a greater preference. (An irresistible aside: my favorite definition of choice is giving up something that you want in order to have something that you want more…This captures the loss that choice necessarily exacts, while putting it into the context of overall benefit, so it’s helpful for folks who have a hard time making decisions to keep in mind.)
For instance a healthy person who does not particularly like to camp could be willing to camp if it meant spending time with friends or family that they enjoy. So the preference to not camp would be less important than the preference to spend some unhurried time with friends.
However, a healthy person would not be willing to rob a liquor store with those same camping friends because robbery would violate their core value of honesty, not to mention expose them to all manner of pesky legal problems.