What Does it Mean to be Healthy?

The meaning of health has evolved over time but early definitions of health focused on the theme of the body’s ability to function. Originally health was seen as a state of normal function that could be disrupted from time to time by disease. Disease is a broad reference to any condition that impairs normal functioning of the body. Most Western countries focus on the physical processes – pathology, biochemistry and physiology of a disease – as primary contributors to health. This is known as the biomedical model. According to the biomedical model, health means freedom from disease, pain, or defect but does consider the role of social factors or individual subjectivity. There is a contrasting model of health that takes a more holistic approach, often referred to as traditional medicine.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures” (WHO, 2019). In 1977, American psychiatrist George Engel developed an interdisciplinary model that looked at the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors. With his biopsychosocial approach, Engel strived for a more holistic approach to health by recognizing that each patient has his or her own thoughts, feelings, and history.

Engel’s biopsychosocial model views the development of illness through the complex interaction of biological factors (genetic, biochemical), psychological factors (mood, personality, behavior) and social factors (cultural, familial, socioeconomic, medical). For example, a person may have a genetic predisposition for depression, but he or she may have social factors such as extreme stress at work and family life, and psychological factors such as a perfectionistic tendency, which when combined can trigger this genetic code for depression.

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Culture and Psychology by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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