Here we are with Part 2 in our new series on the dimensions of health. In Part 1 we merely noted that a series would be a good idea as it will provide a means of documenting many dimensions of the concept and thereby help readers to develop their own definitions for "health".

Recall that I suggested a considered definition provides a platform of knowledge upon which positive health behaviors can be built. So the plan is: learn and do, know and act, got it? I like to press this point because in many years of health education it has always been frustrating to see people learn about health but fail to act on what they had learned.

Today we’ll provide an overview. Let’s start with someone else’s definition of health and deconstruct it.

Perhaps the best known and arguably the most sgnificant definition is the one provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) which states:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

A very simple deconstruction tells us that health:

  • is a state of being
  • involves being well
  • is a complete state so is in some sense measurable
  • is multidimensional
  • has a physical component or aspect
  • has a mental component or aspect
  • has a social component or aspect
  • is a positive experience and not merely the absence of something
  • is specifically not merely the absence of disease
  • is specifically not merely the absence of infirmity 

Those ten observations should give us enough to work with. Have you read my post introducing the concept of holistic health? If not, please do read it as background for our present discussion.

Although the WHO is a truely global, international organization auspiced by the United Nations, its language here is very western. Being in English of course, it couldn’t be anything else. I make this point because the definition actually attempts to be holistic.

Given the limitations of the language to express holistic concepts and the era in which the definition was developed, this listing or catalog approach was actually quite a good attempt at expressing health in an holistic fashion.

Notice that health is a state of being. It is not a condition, one does not catch it. Notice too, that it allows for health to exist within given limitations. This is important so don’t miss this point. Let’s take the example of a disabled person. Suppose someone loses their legs in an accident, can they still be healthy?

Some people point to the requirement for complete physical wellbeing and incorrectly conclude that such a person cannot be considered healthy. But health is a state, not a condition, so it is still quite possible for such a person to achieve health, including complete physical wellbeing, even after losing their legs. It is a matter of being all you can be if you like. So a disabled person can work towards and achieve health within their being, just like anyone else.

The reductionist language forces devices such as lists and use of the term complete to capture the notion of holism. One improvement might then have been to include spiritual wellbeing in the list. Since the WHO doesn’t actually provide much, if any, support in the domain of spiritual health it is understandable that it was ommitted. However, I think we can put it back into our process of developing a defintion of health.

Another interesting point to note is that health is in some sense measurable. Health, as an abstract concept may certainly be understood in qualitative terms. It may also be addressed in quantitative terms, though the scale of measurement is obviously quite low. Indeed, one might regard it as categorical (in the technical measurement sense).

Being measurable raises interesting issues. Can we then say that a person may be more or less healthy? Clearly this appears to be possible and allowed for in the definition.

However, this is actually an area of debate. For some, the definition provided by the WHO is considered merely an ideal concept, much like many consider the stage of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. According to these people there is little point in measuring health since it is simply an idea.

One way to resolve this is to consider health on a continuum and we shall look more closely at this in our next part of the series. We shall proceed, after some discussion of the notion of a continuum, with some elaboration of the physical dimension of health in Part 3.

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