I started every section of the college course I taught by asking my undergraduate students this question. What is “good” health? Inevitably, two or three students would mention something about how it means someone isn’t “sick.” I’d then go on to ask them if they know anyone who “isn’t sick,” but is also not doing well. Maybe they have a friend who is feeling depressed or anxious? Maybe a loved one is under a lot of stress? I’d ask them if they had to choose between physical or emotional health, which would they prefer? Eventually, I’d get a few nods of students who seemed to understand where I was going with this…while a few others kept smiling and pretending they weren’t really texting their buddies under their desks…
While in graduate school, our professors asked us the same question frequently- what did it mean to have “good” health? What does it mean to you? Our professors taught us about the six dimensions of wellness. Turns out, physical health is only one of the six. Emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, and occupational are the other dimensions of wellness. Some also include environmental as a seventh dimension.
The current school of thought is that “good health” is a balance of the dimensions, and that to be truly healthy, a person should be functioning at an optimal level in each of the dimensions, not just one or two of them.
In my experience as a student and instructor, the individuals who would jump on the “good health is no physical illness” train also tended to be individuals who had limited personal experience with physical illness. They typically weren’t aware of anyone else who did either.
Those that experienced physical illness themselves, especially chronic illnesses, seemed to have a better grasp of the dimensions of health. Just as individuals who lose one of their senses tend to further develop their other senses, I find that many individuals who experience chronic illness improve their health in other ways, even with the physical challenges they are experiencing.
According to the CDC, 133 million Americans in 2005- almost 50% of us- had at least one chronic illness. Physical illness and chronic disease can be devastating, but they can also be a tremendous opportunity for growth, improvement, and healing. Hence why it’s even more important for all of us to improve our own health- and pass it on!
My personal belief is that you can be healthy in many ways, even with physical illness. The physical dimension of your health may not be well, but the other dimensions can be very strong. Similarly, one body system may be acting up, while the others are solid and working effectively.
It’s easy for individuals with a physical illness to be pigeon-holed into the “sick” group, and it’s also easy for them to begin to believe it and buy into it. It’s also convenient for people without physical illness to assume that means they are healthy, even as they run around with their hair on fire in an emotional tizzy. (They shall remain nameless…) I think we all know, however, that health is far more complicated than this.
Until the next time… What do you think? Is good health simply the absence of illness? Please feel free to comment below and share how you feel about it. I’d love to hear from you!
And…don’t forget…good health is contagious, pass it on!