Defining Health and Wellness - The Health Of The United States, Birthrates And Fertility Rates, Infant Mortality, Life Expectancy

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Individual health is closely linked to community health—the health of the community in which individuals live, work, and play. Likewise, community health is profoundly affected by the collective beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of everyone who lives in the community.

Healthy People 2010: Understanding and Improving Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000

Many definitions of health exist. Most definitions consider health as an outcome—the result of actions to produce it, such as good nutrition, immunization to prevent disease, or medical treatment to cure disease. The American Heritage Dictionary defines health as fixed and measurable—"the overall condition of an organism at a given time." However, health also may be viewed as the active process used by individuals and communities to adapt to ever-changing environments.

The eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines health as "the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain." In 1948, however, the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity." This still widely used definition is broader and more positive than simply defining health as the absence of illness or disability.

Expanding on the WHO definition of health and the commonly understood idea of well-being, the concept of wellness has been defined by the National Wellness Association as "an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a more successful existence." Wellness encompasses how people feel about various aspects of their lives. Six interrelated aspects of human life are commonly known to comprise wellness:

  • Emotional wellness refers to awareness, sensitivity, and acceptance of feelings and the ability to successfully express and manage one's feelings. Emotional wellness enables people to cope with stress, maintain satisfying relationships with family and friends, and assume responsibility for their actions.
  • Intellectual wellness emphasizes knowledge, learning, creativity, problem solving, and lifelong interest in learning and new ideas.
  • Occupational wellness relates to preparing for and pursuing work that is meaningful, satisfying, and consistent with one's interests, aptitudes, and personal beliefs.
  • Physical wellness is more than simply freedom from disease. The physical dimension of wellness concentrates on prevention of illness and encourages exercise, healthy diet, and knowledgeable, appropriate use of the health care system. Physical wellness requires individuals to take personal responsibility for actions and choices that affect their health. Examples of healthy choices include wearing a seatbelt in automobiles, wearing a helmet when bicycling, and avoiding tobacco and illegal drugs.
  • Social wellness is acting in harmony with nature, family, and others in the community. The pursuit of social wellness may involve actions to protect or preserve the environment or contribute to the health and well-being of the community by performing volunteer work.
  • Spiritual wellness involves finding meaning in life and acting purposefully in a manner that is consistent with one's deeply held values and beliefs.

The concept of wellness is broader and includes more facets of human life than the traditional definition of health, and the two differ in an important way. When defined as the absence of disease, health may be measured and assessed objectively. For example, a physical examination and the results of laboratory testing enable a physician to determine that a patient is free of disease and thereby healthy.

In comparison, wellness is a more subjective quality and is more difficult to measure. The determination of wellness relies on self-assessment and self-report. Further, it is not necessarily essential that individuals satisfy the traditional definition of good health to rate themselves high in terms of wellness. For instance, many people with chronic (ongoing or long-term) conditions—such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma—or disabilities report high levels of satisfaction with each of the six dimensions of wellness. Similarly, people in apparently good health may not necessarily give themselves high scores in all six aspects of wellness.

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