What Is Health?

Health is a complex concept and the definitions vary widely. In general, health is viewed as an individual’s capacity to function and to cope with the demands of their life in ways that are consistent with good mental and physical condition. Health may be measured by medical tests or by the presence of disease symptoms.

A person’s ability to meet daily demands can be influenced by a range of factors such as their financial situation, the quality of education they receive, the state of the water and air in their environment, their social relationships and interactions, their physical environment (including housing, access to transport and the quality of food), their emotional stability and the way in which they manage stress. These factors are known as the determinants of health.

The problem with the WHO definition is that it places too much emphasis on complete physical wellbeing. It also contributes to the medicalisation of society. This is because medical technology and drug industries, in conjunction with professional organisations, tend to redefine diseases, expanding the scope of illnesses that require intervention. In addition, thresholds for intervention are lowered.

There is a need for a more humble approach that recognises the dimensions of suffering in people’s lives, even when they do not have a serious illness. This will allow individuals to understand that while science has brought many benefits, it cannot eradicate disease and suffering.

It will also make it possible to focus more on the determinants of health, such as economic stability and development, quality education, the quality of housing and transport and the safety of communities. These are the factors that can shape an individual’s sense of well-being and their capacity to withstand adversity, change and uncertainty.

Changing the place of health on the scale of values is not an easy task for governments or the health sector alone. People’s values are shaped throughout their lives by parents, friends, teachers, the media and laws, as well as by their own life course and experience. Health is a value that needs to be placed higher up on the scale than other values, but this must be done by all those who influence values.

People who want to become healthy need to develop positive social habits, such as regular exercise and a nutritious diet. These can be hard to stick with at first, but it is important for them to remember why they are doing it. For example, if they have young children, they might aim to walk to school rather than drive, and plan ahead by finding indoor options for walking on days when the weather is bad. This is a strategy similar to that described in BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits, which encourages small steps towards bigger goals. This will help them stay on track when setbacks occur. It is helpful to have a friend or family member who can be a support in achieving these goals.