Our health is clearly influenced by a wide range of issues from genetics to lifestyle to our external environment. There’s no shortage of discussion about the factors that contribute to health and how to optimize and improve it. But what do we really mean by health? How do we define it? What does good health look like?
Many people regard the absence of disease as being in good health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health not as merely the absence of ill-health but as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”.
Physical health can be described as the absence of disease and an optimal functioning of all parts of our body. Mental health is about much more than just the absence of mental illness: it encompasses positive issues such as peace of mind, a sense of belonging and confidence. Social well-being is determined by the strength of an individual’s relationships, and the way in which they function within their community.
Whilst it is certainly beneficial to aspire to this state through things like diet, sleep, exercise, social connection and reducing stress, I don’t think defining good health with a perfect human being represents the reality of many people’s circumstances.
Health is not a fixed entity. It varies and is in a state of constant flux for every individual, depending on their circumstances. Health is defined not by a doctor, but by the person, according to his or her functional needs. For example, if person A has an illness but isn’t focused on the condition and is able to adapt to their circumstances, are they any less healthy than person B who doesn’t have an illness but isn’t motivated to do anything to improve their lifestyle?
Going by the WHO definition, person A is not healthy because they can never be in a complete state of physical well-being because of their illness. However, I don’t think perfection is the right way to define good health. Rather, it should be achievable for anyone regardless of their individual circumstances.
I like French Physician Georges Canguilhem concept that good health is defined by an ‘individual’s ability to adapt to one’s environment’. The great thing about this is that it puts the individual in a position of authority to define his or her health needs. They can choose what works for them.
This doesn’t mean they can carry on with their unhealthy habits. Rather, it puts them in charge of what healthier habits they adopt into their lifestyle. Adaptability is liberating because it is achievable for everyone, no matter their circumstances.
By replacing perfection with adaptation, humanity gets closer to a more empowering state of good health. Therefore, no matter what your current physical, mental or social well-being, if you are willing to take responsibility for your health and adapt your lifestyle to suit, then in my opinion you are in good health.