What is Health? (Joan Watson)

When I was asked to write a few entries on health for Westminster’s new blog, I said, sure, I can do that. But very quickly the enormity of what I had agreed to do, temporarily paralyzed the presses in my mind. I recovered by checking the definition of blog—opinions, experiences, observations shared with others on a website. So here you have it—health according to Joan!

The most famous modern definition of health comes to us from the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948—“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition has not been amended since 1948. Considering it was written nearly 70 years ago, when the health world was a very different place, it was even a bit prophetic. Recent clinical research in human genetics suggests the absence of disease is not only unattainable, it never exists.
The concept of wellness was presented in 1961 by Dr. Dunn in High Level Wellness, which at least in the nursing community, changed the way we address health. The essence of wellness embraces a life-long process oriented toward maximizing an individual’s potential of physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, economic, and environmental well-being. Optimal wellness requires the integration of mind, body, spirit in order to achieve our goals and find meaning and purpose in our lives. This notion feeds into my often uttered mantra--we all are doing the best we can with what we have to work with! We are a dynamic state of interacting variables; change any of those variables and we can adapt our health/wellness outcomes.

WHO incorporated this notion of adaptability in the 1986 organizing charter for Health Promotion -- “Health is a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.” Throughout our lives, we adapt and change in all aspects of our being, often leading to a sense of hope.

Have you noticed, health care providers are including assessment of health as part of their intake information? It always gives me pause to be asked to rate my health on a 5 point scale; but usually I manage to resist the temptation to ask for clarification as to exactly what factors we are discussing! Individual health is affected by a wide range of factors, from who we are to where and with whom we live. Research is replete with studies that link good health to: higher socioeconomic status, safe and clean environments, employment, higher education, support from those close to you, genetics, and a positive outlook. On the other hand, we all know people who have all the positive determinants of good health and yet function in very poor health. On an individual level, how we adapt/manage ourselves and our environment likely IS the determining factor in our health.

Today, the notion that our genetic makeup is un-alterable is being challenged by research on the connections of body, mind, and spirit. A pioneer in the field, Deepak Chopra, has many publications that seek to transform the way we view physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social wellness. His recent book with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, Super Genes, explores the notion that we are not simply the sum of the genes we are born with, but rather the user and controller of our genes. This radical approach opens the potential power of our minds to maximize health, happiness, and spiritual well-being.

Today, we are fortunate to be in a position to benefit from the health/wellness paradigm shift. Achieving a healthy state requires balance, and there is no one sure path to good health for everyone. If it were simple, we would not be having this discussion. Perhaps attention to our health is meaningful during this Lenten season when our focus on introspection, moderation, repentance, self-denial, and spiritual discipline is an intention to draw closer to God. I encourage you to spend some time during the next 6 weeks reflecting on what health means to you. The next entries will examine a few health topics I hope you find interesting.

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