What Is Health?
Excerpted from ESSENTIAL CONCEPTS FOR HEALTHY LIVING by JEFF HOUSMAN and MARY ODUM
Most people can describe how it feels to be healthy or ill, but trying to define health is not an easy task. In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) constitution defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Some, however, consider this definition too limited and suggest health cannot be a state because our health is ever changing.
The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion defines health as “a resource for everyday life . . . a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capabilities.” According to this charter, health requires “peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice and equity.” In addition to these conditions, most healthy adults want to function independently; enjoy eating, sexual, and physical activities; feel good about themselves; and enjoy being with family and friends.
Behavioral scientist Godfrey Hochbaum proposed a simple definition for health: “Health is what helps me be what I want to be . . . do what I want to do . . . [and] live the way I would like to live.”
In this text, we use concepts from all of these perspectives and define health as “a dynamic state or condition of the human organism that is multidimensional (i.e., physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, and occupational) in nature, a resource for living, and results from a person’s interactions with an adaptations to his or her environment”.
Health and Wellness
Health and wellness are related concepts. Good health enables one to function adequately and independently in a constantly changing environment; at one’s best level. … There are degrees of health. The absence of functioning (premature death) is at one end of this continuum, and the highest level of functioning (optimal well-being) is at the other end. Many people accept responsibility for the quality of their health and well-being. These people are willing to take various steps to improve their health, achieving a higher degree of wellness in the process. Most health educators agree that health and wellness are holistic; that is, they involve all aspects of the individual. Thus, the holistic concept of health encompasses not only the physical, psychological, and social aspects but also the intellectual, spiritual, and environmental dimensions of a person. Each dimension is an integral part of a person’s health, and any change in the quality of one component of health affects the others. For example, individuals who exercise with others to increase their level of physical health often report a sense of improved psychological and social health.
The Components of Health
Physical Health Physical health refers to the overall condition of the organ systems, such as the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels), respiratory system (lungs), reproductive system, and nervous system. A healthy person’s systems function properly; the individual feels well and is free of disease. When organs do not function adequately, a person has various signs and symptoms of illness. Signs are the observable and measurable features of an illness, such as fever, rash, and abnormal behavior. Symptoms are the subjective complaints of an illness, such as reports of fatigue, headaches, and numbness. An acute condition or illness, such as the common cold or a food-borne infection, tends to develop quickly and resolve within a few days or weeks. A chronic condition or disease often takes months or years to develop, progresses in severity, and can affect a person over a longer period, in some cases, throughout his or her lifetime.
Psychological Health Psychological (mental) health involves the ability to deal effectively with the psychological challenges of life. Psychologically healthy people accept responsibility for their behavior, feel good about themselves and others, are comfortable with their emotions (feelings), and have positive, realistic outlooks on life. Although experiences such as losing a job or a family member cause stress or grief, psychologically healthy people are able to limit the extent to which crises affect their lives.
Social Health Social health is the sense of wellbeing that an individual achieves by forming emotionally supportive and intellectually stimulating relationships with family members, friends, and associates. Living in communities rather than in isolation, identifying with social groups, and belonging to organizations strengthen the social dimension of health. When social networks break down, health declines.
Intellectual Health Intellectual health is the ability to use problem solving and other higher-order thinking skills to deal effectively with life’s challenges. Healthy people analyze situations, determine alternative courses of action, and make decisions. After making decisions, intellectually healthy individuals are able to judge the effectiveness of their choices and learn from their experiences. Effective intellectual skills enable people to feel in control of their lives.
Spiritual Health Spiritual health is the belief that one is a part of a larger scheme of life and that one’s life has purpose. Identifying with a religion and having religious beliefs influence the spiritual health of many people. However, spirituality is not confined to those who belong to organized religious groups or have religious beliefs. People can develop spirituality without practicing a particular religion or believing in the power of a supreme being. Whatever the nature of their spirituality, many individuals achieve a sense of inner peace and harmony as well as emotional fulfillment by believing that their lives have a purpose. As in the other wellness dimensions, a breakdown in spiritual health can have a negative impact on one’s well-being.
Environmental Health Nothing affects the quality of wellness components as much as the state of the environment—the conditions in which people live, work, and play. Environmental concerns that influence wellness include the provision of clean water and air, the management of wastes, and the control of distressing social problems such as crime and family violence. Humans cannot achieve a high degree of wellness if their environment is polluted or unsafe.