The concept of health is highly subjective and depends on a variety of factors. It is also influenced by the culture, environment and personal perceptions. It is therefore difficult to come up with a precise definition of health. It is important for healthcare professionals to know how their patients define health, and what influences these perspectives. This will help them to create suitable strategies for promoting health.
Most people view health as something that includes the whole person: mental, emotional and social. They consider that health is a balance between an individual’s body and environment, in which the former provides energy for everyday life. They may perceive certain activities as more healthy or unhealthy, for example eating a well-balanced diet or participating in sports. The perception of health is also influenced by values, expectations and priorities in life. These are often related to age, medical conditions and family situation. Most people are realistic in their life-expectations, and they are able to adapt to different situations.
A more practical approach to health was adopted with the establishment of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948, when it defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This understanding is now referred to as salutogenesis – the study of factors that support health.
However, a more limited definition is still commonly used. In this case, health is viewed as being free from illness. It is important to note that the diagnosis of illness is based on a medical examination performed by a doctor, and it only takes into account symptoms and signs that can be observed. Therefore, a person who is ill today could be declared healthy tomorrow, as advances in medicine enable new and more sophisticated diagnostic methods.
The concept of health can also be seen as a process of developing, or re-establishing, functional ability and self-esteem, which is dependent on the societal environment and personal choices. This concept of health focuses on achieving a high level of functioning by taking advantage of the possibilities offered by society, and it emphasizes individual responsibility for maintaining good health.
Research indicates that many people agree that their lifestyle is the main determinant of their health. In a multi-site ethnographic study, Fugelli and Ingstad found that people from various backgrounds had different perceptions of health and determinants thereof. Interestingly, they found that the majority of people regarded their health as partly determined by their environment and largely dependent on their lifestyle.