Health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a condition of “complete physical, mental and emotional well-being” and not just the absence of illness and disease. A variety of other definitions have also been used over the years for various purposes. In some dictionaries, health is described as the condition of being fit, happy, healthy and at peace with himself or with others. The Mayo Clinic advises, “This definition does not necessarily mean that all your symptoms are related to your physical health. Emotional health includes the ability to enjoy life to the fullest, with low stress levels, good relationships and good health-related perceptions.”
Another definition is that which satisfies the need of the individual in order to live a healthy and functional life. It is a state of harmony and well being that leads to a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and freedom from conflict, unhappiness and frustration. According to this second definition, health is a basic human right. It is something that every individual must choose to attain for himself. Although the above two versions of the definition of health are highly accepted, some people believe that health is best achieved through a holistic approach involving all aspects of a person’s life.
Environmental factors, on the other hand, include social, physical and emotional aspects such as poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, violence, tobacco use, junk food, inadequate education, unhealthy eating habits, occupational hazards, etc. Social factors include those that affect a person’s interaction with other people such as their families, communities, workplaces and schools; and environmental factors that affect a person’s body, mind and spirit such as pollution, pesticides, noise, sunlight, chemicals and toxins. Emotional factors include ones that result from the physical, emotional, mental and cultural experiences of an individual during his or her lifetime. This type of environmental factor is more likely to lead to health disparities than any other environmental factors.
The third major concept is wellness, which is associated with maintaining and improving health through preventive and medical interventions. In order to achieve wellness, steps should be taken at both the personal and societal level. Individuals can contribute to their own wellness by practicing a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Societal factors such as poverty, discrimination, violence and physical hazards may contribute to an individual’s health in ways not directly related to illness or injury.
The fourth and final element is mental and emotional wellness. People need to have positive social and physical experiences in order to be able to build a positive self-image and sense of well-being. A healthy body also needs to be surrounded by supportive friends and family. At the same time, individuals should engage in regular physical activity and commit to a reasonable and achievable fitness goal. All of these elements have great potential to influence physical wellness and the potential for developing a more meaningful life.
Each of the four definitions described above are important to understanding the relationship between illness and public health. The overall goal is to reduce the differences that currently exist in the way that people experience health. A healthy definition for health should be influenced by the knowledge that all people have the ability to lead a healthy life if they choose to do so and that medical conditions are not the only things that prevent them from doing so. As the definition of health continues to change so too will the resources available to improve the health of all Americans.