The Health Conversation, Chapter 3: What is Health?

What is Health?

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have” [Winston Churchill]

Health is individual. It’s also a chameleon, constantly changing its appearance as we move through our lives. And for these reasons, my health is most certainly different to your health; that’s not only in terms of our interpretation of what health personally means to us but also of its current state and its future state. So with so much variability you may begin to realise that it’s pretty bloody hard to define. Of course, by define, I don’t mean the textbook definition – I mean to define to you.

With all that in mid, what I want to attempt is to help build a really simple four pillar building in your mind. The four pillars represent physical health, psychological health, social health, and spiritual health. Try and picture this building. Each pillar is an equally important structural component to support that roof which is called ‘total health’. Without a weak pillar, the roof collapses.

Pillar One: Physical Health

I thought we should start with the most obvious, yes? Now I tend to think of physical health as referring to the health of our physical make-up. That’s from your skin, to your internal organs, to the millions of cells that exist within our body. These all work in an awe-inspiring dynamic, ever-changing, ever-adjusting synergy that allows us to manage the environment we exist in. Not only that but it helps to manage what, we ourselves, do to our body from the food we decide to consume to the illness we acquire or injuries we sustain. It is often the component of health we all most readily associate being ‘healthy’ with. It is also the one that we positively associate with being able to function in society with. What I’ll show you next is that you can achieve an even more brilliant feeling of total health when you refocus on the three other pillars of your building.

Pillar Two: Psychological Health

Now because I felt that psychological health, or mental health if you prefer, is often the elephant in the room when in comes to health, I wanted to introduce you to a formal definition by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO state mental health as a subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, intergenerational dependence, and self-actualisation of one’s intellectual and emotional potential, among others. Bit wordy isn’t it. Basically it is a sensation of feeling good about life and positively engaging without yourself and those around you. And you know our psychological health is such an unbelievably important pillar to our total health roof. I say this in the context of a society where subclinical and clinical depression is on the rise, and life dissatisfaction, stress and apathy permeates at all levels. We all deserve a state of psychological wellbeing where we are not only free of mental disorder and disability but also free of unacceptable levels of stress in our life. It is crucial to allowing ourselves to have good, balanced total health.

Pillar Three: Social Health

We are social creatures. Now yes while, it is true that some are (much) more social than others, craving the limelight and social butterfly status, we all to a greater or lesser degree want to socialise. It is, as I am sure you will agree, an incredibly important and powerful component to our total health; to live in isolation without social contact has been shown to be detrimental to your overall health. After all, no man is an island. We are happier when we socialise, when we engage with people, when we laugh, and off-load stories and stresses. In the process treat and alleviate many burdening psychological health problems we may have and stop them from pathologically growing from seed into some horrible venus flytrap, eating away at our health. Friends are the best medicine. This pillar is being powerfully affected by modern life. While many of us may argue we have fantastic social access (although concerning this is increasingly ‘online’), we are also seeing an elderly generation facing years of increasing isolation and loneliness. This is an unresolved and emerging tragedy that we must tackle.

Pillar Four: Spiritual Health

This for me is the one pillar of my building that I am still in desperate need to use and learn about more. I tell you that because I think it’s pretty ignorant and unfair of me to jump on my literary soap box (I don’t think that the literary scholars will be hailing The Health Conversation as the read of the decade somehow!) and state how important spiritual health is when I am still learning to appreciate it more myself! Spiritual health will mean different things to different people. To be honest with you, I’m not even that sure how to define it. Then again, it’s like Louis Armstrong said, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know”, and so perhaps it’s not possible to properly define spiritual health. You just know it when you have it. So with that in mind, you may knowingly have it in your life already, or after reading this realise that you unknowingly had it in your life. Perhaps however, this is entirely new. So what could spiritual health mean? Religion? Possibly. Mindfulness? Could be. Or meditation and spiritualism? Maybe. In fact I guess that it could be any connection you have with an outside force or being that is in some way linked to religion or a spiritual way of life. People often associate its importance with when at the end of their lives but I am increasingly seeing its value through every stage of our lives as a key element to attain total health.

So what influences all of these different components of health? Well, to be honest, you know the answer already. Go on, think. I bet if you had a piece of paper and pen, you could right down a list of things in your life that influence the four components of your health. Broadly speaking we can divide them into internal and external factors. The internal factors pertain to what happens to your body naturally without your active engagement. The external factors pertain to what we do to our body and how it then reacts. These, as you might guess, are the more problematic issues like smoking, calorie rich diets, no exercise, sedentary living (yes that is a different problem from no exercise) and excess alcohol consumption. But we won’t dwell on these here as we’ll talk about these later. All I want you take away is the concept that there are four pillars to your health: physical, psychological, social and spiritual. To achieve the best possible roof that holds your total health, you need to pay attention to all four pillars. Equally.


Chapter 4 of the Health Conversation will be posted next week!

Dr Nick Knight @DrNickKnight

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