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What Is Health?


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There’s no shortage of discussion about the factors that contribute to health and how to optimize and improve it. But what is health, really? How do we define it? And can the way we define health actually influence our experience of it?

what is health
The concept of what it means to be healthy is important to define. deathtothestockphoto.com

A few weeks ago, I taught a seminar for clinicians in Pennsylvania. During the Q&A period, someone asked what I think is a very important—and underrated—question: what is health?

The concept of health is so familiar that many of us have never thought much about what it really means. That was certainly true for me prior to my decade-long struggle with chronic illness that began in my early 20s.

If asked, I suspect most people would define health as “the absence of disease.” And in fact, if you look up “health” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you’ll find a very similar definition: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain.”

Is Health Really Just the Absence of Disease?

While this common definition of health certainly has merit, I think it’s too limiting and reductionistic.

Imagine someone (Person A) who is the picture of physical health: he has boundless energy, perfect digestion, a sharp mind, no chronic, inflammatory conditions, and rarely (if ever) get colds and flus. But in other areas of life, this person is a wreck: he has terrible relationships, he’s selfish and doesn’t contribute to the lives of others, he has no sense of humor, rarely has fun, and is miserable most of the time.

Now consider someone (Person B) that is in many ways the opposite of Person A: perhaps she has an autoimmune disease, she struggles with low energy, her digestion is weak, and she sometimes has difficulty sleeping. But unlike Person A, her life is incredibly rich and satisfying: she has deep, nourishing relationships with others, she does meaningful work that makes a difference in the world, she is full of joy and humor, and she loves to have a good time.

Which of these people is truly “healthy”? Both? Neither? If you had to choose between these alternatives, which would you choose?

Of course, there is another possibility: Person C. Person C is healthy physically as well as mentally, emotionally, and socially. This is certainly what most of us aspire to, and it’s a perfectly natural and valid goal.

The problem is that it’s not always attainable.

When “Perfect Health” Isn’t Possible

During the course of my long struggle with chronic illness, I had a lot of time to think about this question of what health is and what it really means to me.

At one stage in my journey, after trying everything I could possibly imagine to get well without a lot of success, I had a breakdown. I reached a point where I just couldn’t see the future I had always imagined for myself when I was a “healthy” person: a successful career, a family, and an active and energetic life. These things no longer seemed possible for me, given how sick I was.

This led to a period of deep depression and despair—and it was without a doubt the darkest and most difficult time of my life.

But as the saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn. At some point during this “dark night of the soul,” I realized that the depression and despair I was feeling was the direct result of comparing my actual experience with an idea of what I thought my experience should be. I saw that I was striving for an ideal of health that was—at least at that point—unattainable, and that this was the cause of most of my suffering.

How We Define Health Has Tremendous Power

These realizations led to a profound shift for me. Up until that time, I had been focusing almost exclusively on figuring out the cause of my illness and “fixing” it: I saw doctors all over the country and the world, I took countless medications, herbs, and supplements, and did every special diet you can imagine.

But after this “dark night,” my focus began to shift. I continued to eat well, but I let go of “finding the answer” for a while. I stopped seeing doctors, taking supplements, and obsessively researching new treatments.

Instead, I focused on bringing more joy, pleasure, and meaning into my life. I spent more time with my friends. I took regular walks in the woods and surfed as much as I could. I volunteered to teach meditation at the San Francisco County Jail. I signed up for an improvisation class. I did a massage trade with a friend and got acupuncture once a week. And after a while, I decided to go back to school to study integrative medicine so I could use what I had learned to help others.

Several months after making these changes, the depression and despair were gone, and I was feeling more connected, alive, and hopeful than I had in a long time. But that’s not all that changed; my physical health started to improve as well. I had more energy, my digestion was better, my sleep was less interrupted, and I began to put weight on again (which had been impossible until then). These improvements rejuvenated me and gave me the boost I needed to continue searching for new treatments that ultimately led to further physical recovery.

This time in my life taught me a very important lesson: how we frame and perceive our experience has tremendous power—even the power to change it.

If I had continued to define health only as “the absence of disease,” what would my life have been like? A constant experience of disappointment, “not enough,” frustration, and failure.

But as my definition of health expanded and became more inclusive, new possibilities opened up. I was able to find ways to experience joy, pleasure, meaning, and ultimately, health—even in the midst of physical pain and discomfort. What’s more, the reframing of my definition of health didn’t just lead to more happiness, it ended up improving my physical health as well.

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An Alternative Definition of Health: The Ability to Live Your Dreams

Several years have passed since the period I described above, but I continue to think a lot about what health means to me. It’s a subject I am fascinated by and never stop learning and reading about.

In all of that time, I think the best definition of health that I’ve come across is “the ability to live your dreams.” This comes from a man named Moshé Feldenkrais, the creator of the Feldenkrais method (designed to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement).

I like this definition because it does not refer to the absence of pain, discomfort, or disease. Instead, it points more toward a quality of life and way of being in the world.

An example that comes to mind is my late Zen teacher, Darlene Cohen. She had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune inflammatory condition affecting the joints, for more than 30 years. When the disease first struck her, she lost 40 pounds and was forced to stay in bed. She couldn’t dress herself, hold the phone receiver, or get up from the toilet unassisted. From her book:

In four months of deterioration, I lost everything that meant anything to me: reliance on a strong, young body; my achievements and the sense of self-worth they brought me; my pleasure in being a sexually attractive woman; my identity as a mother; and my ability to do the required practices and sustain myself in the community in which I lived as a student of Zen meditation. I became isolated from everyone I knew by my pain and fear and ultimately even by the consuming effort I had to make to do any little thing – like get up from a chair, pick up a cup of tea.

While Darlene eventually recovered from the worst of her symptoms described above, she continued to struggle with the severe pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility that many people with rheumatoid arthritis experience.

Yet Darlene never let her physical limitations stand in the way of living her dreams. She was one of the wisest, funniest, most joyful and vibrant human beings that I ever met, and she dedicated her life to relieving the suffering of others.

In my opinion, this is true health. Not boundless energy, or perfect digestion, or being able to run a marathon, or living until you’re 120, but the ability to live your dreams regardless of your circumstances.

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Join the conversation

  1. However simple, this article may just be the most profound and helpful sentiment I have come across in my 2.5 year journey to find health. I will be re-reading this daily until I really get it. Thank you, Chris.

  2. I can really relate to what you say, Chris.

    I had leukaemia 6 years ago and my treatment took about 18 months. I suffered quite a few side-effects from the treatment and ended up being diagnosed with moderate depression. All I wanted was to be “normal” again. It took a little while to realise what you say, that the important thing was that I was alive and had a wonderful support network. I still have my sense of humour and can see the funny side of everything.

    I think the turning point for me came when my husband started bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t the person he had married just 19 months before I was diagnosed. I gently suggested that we were both lucky that I was alive and that we should look at what we still had, rather than what we had lost. It was a mind shift for us both.

    Has it changed the side-effects? Not really. But I now just accept them as my “normal” and get on with living my life. I am now studying naturopathy and hope to use it to support other people who have been in that dark place I was in. So I hope something good will come from all of it.

  3. Best thing I have read in a long, long time. Thank you for aligning me once again to what true health is, Chris. More people need to read this – because you’re right – it is how we respond to our circumstances that defines the result, not the events that happen to us. Can;t control everything…sometimes we just need to simplify!

  4. Hi chris,
    I had a brain injury in 2008, I was a lap dancer, @ coming home on evening, i was on the wrong side of the highway, due to misleading signs,
    A drunk driver went into the side of me at 90m.p,h, i hit my head on the dash board, @ the car was spinning round @ round,
    Then i went into darkness, @ just remembering being cut out of the car, by the fire services, being taken to hospital, @ being in intensive care for many weeks
    Everybody was just amazed, how i actually survived ,the horrific accident.
    I had suffered a brain haemorrhage, @ even though all my cognitive skills was very much in tact, ( memory, thinking, speech e.t,c )
    It effected the left side of my body,
    Totally life changing i got very depressed, suicidal thoughts went through my mind every single day, i sank into depression, @ the isolation was unbearable.
    So i started to search for a cure / improvement, for years, years, i was emailing all around the worls, i must of emailed every single professor / scientist in the world
    On the 9th september, this year, i got an email from a robert zhou, from the ucla brain injury research center in los angeles, saying they are doing an upcoming T.B.I study for brain injury,
    So to cut a long story short, if i meet there criteria, i will be accepted to go on the study,
    I just cannot tell you for 1 minute, how happy iam feeling, going through my darkest times, i eat fish, chicken, ‘ loads of freshly steamed vegetables, I taken all my vitamins which i still do,
    But chris, most off all iam so excited, that i might be going on this study, It could change my life completly, @ give me back my life, that i have lost for nearly 8 yrars.
    I will definitely keep you posted, @ thankyoufor all your lovely emails every week i get of you, i do appreciate them so much.
    Bye for now thankyou

  5. Hi Chris

    Great piece. Good to read more of a topic you touched on in London last weekend – an absolute privilege to be in the audience and I know my fellow attendees all felt the same!

    Mind-body-spirit all one, all Tao

  6. I think you nailed it with that definition of health, Chris. It’s so easy to fixate on the ways our bodies are out of whack. I developed a little mantra years ago when I was really anxious about a hearing issue I was experiencing and some other issues (which finally eased with acupuncture) and it went like this: “Are there bombs falling on my head? Can I walk outside under the sky and do most of the things I want to do? What a lucky human I am!” I clung to that thought, repeating it to myself several times a day and it totally lifted my mood. In fact, I think it was key to my recovery.

  7. So thankful for ts article. For many years I have been trying to find out the ‘why’ and ‘what’ with little joy. To,the point I have felt like a hypochondriac – yet assured by medically professionals this is not the case. I live a very full life, and don’t let my current situation hold me captive in pity partying. However, I do suffer from acute episodes of anxiety, fatigue and other issues which when they occur cause me to feel guilty because I am unable to do the things I want to or feel that I should be able to do. I continually aim for the joy in life and often feel let down because I don’t actually feel it.

    I have considered depression as the culprit and have had two different medical opinions.

    Thanks to this article which gave me a great sense of what joy can be, I will seek to make each moment and experience count and appreciate my blessings more.

    Thank you Chris – very much.

  8. I’ve asked that same question of myself and came up with mobility.

    Funnily enough I have a Feldenkrais facilitator (teacher’s not the right word but not sure facilitator is either).

    I found myself telling someone I’m the fittest and most content I’ve ever been but I can no longer walk unaided 22yrs after a diagnosis of MS.

    ‘Know what your priorities are’ which I guess is a variation of being able to follow your dreams?

  9. Thank you for this Chris. I too have been suffering with an undiagnosed digestive issue for ten years. I was on the right track since I went gluten and dairy free earlier this year and had started to feel better. Sadly though I was diagnosed with breast cancer three months ago and since that time have undergone two major surgeries plus ingested many, many medications and anti biopics. I am now cancer free but my digestion is horrible. I was in such despair this morning from the reflux, constant sore throat and reoccurring headaches when I opened your post. It filled me with hope! I have a wonderful life and a loving, generous family who show me they love me daily. That’s hard to replicate. Your perspective has hardened my resolve to reboot and get my system back into working order but also to be kind to myself because health is many things.
    Thank you

  10. Sixteen months ago something happened to my body that was so scary that I thought I had ALS. I was worried about falling, had trouble climbing stairs, and could hardly hold a newspaper because I felt so weak. The other symptoms were constant jerking of my extremities, tics, buzzing in the feet, and strange sensations over my entire body. These symptoms were relentless and I could not sleep. ALS was ruled out and I was then misdiagnosed with LEMS. While I am 95% better and back to running a few miles a day I cannot stop freaking out at times. I do not have a diagnosis but will not let a neurologist go on a fishing expedition to find out what is wrong. They cannot, and I just need to start living life more fully and happily. Thank you Chris for all you do.

      • Thanks Karen for the suggestion. I was tested (not correctly though) and it was negative. I really researched Lyme but do not think it is Lyme.

  11. The last several weeks I have been rolling some form of this question in my head, and I am so glad you asked it, and answered it in a beautifully simple way. I think first of my own journey thru digestive junk, but then especially of our 8- year old daughter who has left-sided hemiparesis/cerebral palsy. Achieving full physical “health” for her will be near impossible (unless by a miracle), but please don’t tell that child she can’t do something! I will save this article and share it with her one day. Thank you!

  12. Thank you, Chris.
    Like many of you who’ve already chimed in, I live with chronic illness. I have experimented with “bio-hacks” (cutting-edge supplements; tests). I’ve probably clocked in 100’s of hours of deep reading these past years, too. Double-edged sword, as I am also a professional science researcher = Too much of a good thing is not a good thing! The result of obsessive researching left my emotional/psychological well-being hanging by a thread. I became a shadow of my more joyful, stable self.
    Gratefully, not all of the effort was in vain. The upside of my innate persistence is that I found a caring, competent naturopathic caregiver in my region. He treats me like a human being, and models the behavior he desires for his patients.
    A wake-up call in the form of a car wreck in January, which set my health back 2 steps, compelled me to get very clear on what my body/mind needed to heal. No more long hours reading scientific papers on HPTA-axis dysfunction or health blogs. As per Chris’s wisdom, I decided to reorient my attention back to the things that nourish me: a yoga practice (my lifelong Muse), a 10-minute morning meditation, and cultivating once-stagnant friendships with a few extraordinary souls. I also began volunteering 2 hours a week at a local hospice center– talk about eye-opening!
    A big part of creating harmony at home with my boyfriend involved taking a look at my tendencies born from the obsessive health-research. During mealtime, I now pay close attention to my tendency to “geek out” on the health benefits of the meal’s ingredients. To him, it can be a joykill. I now chose to simply imbue the meals I prepare with positive energy. I reserve this “database” of whole food benefits for curious friends or acquaintances who *want* to geek out with me.
    Life is much sweeter now, even on not so good days.

  13. Anytime I see any definition of health, there is no mention of intergenerational health (i.e., passing that health on to the next generation). It is if it assumed that this will happen–though we know this not to be the case. Diets that can support adults are not necessarily diets that promote health and good form in developing humans (i.e., infants, toddlers, and children). While having a body that is capable of celebrating life is important, so too should be the ability to produce healthy and well-formed children (i.e., those with our ancestral form that have broad faces that have room for their tooth and broad pelvises, etc.). I consider this to be the highest standard by which a diet (and lifeway) can be measured. Healthy and well-formed children requires more than just food (which was alluded to here), it requires a community of healthy people living on a healthy landscape. Thank you for the article.

  14. Hi Chris,
    I really enjoyed the article. I have been where you were in the aspect of thinking there was always another goal to reach. I realize now that I already am healthy and have the important things that matter in life. Thanks for the information.

  15. Thank you for this post! I am a nutrition coach and the more people I work with the more concerned I have become about their mental and emotional state while trying to find root causes to their health issues. We become so wrapped up in the details of the what and why and the restrictions and symptoms that we forget to nourish not just the physical body, but the whole self. This post is very encouraging for me and my clients and I plan to keep asking this question daily.

    • Thank you so much for your definition of health. And thank you for helping me understand that there are ways to improve. I went grain free 4 months ago because of my digestive tract. I have done so much better since then. I found that the inflammation in my system has subsided. I used to have a gum cyst that recurred every few days or weeks. My dentist told me that it was caused by a fractured tooth root and I would need the tooth removed and a tooth implant. However eating no grains I think has reduced my body’s inflammation. No more recurrent cyst. Plus I have lost over 10 pounds of fat around my middle. Thank you so much. I believe health includes balancing an individual’s food requirements, emotional well being and finding a physical activity you love. I have an eye condition that runs in my family. I found a study about black seed currant oil that gives me a glimmer of hope. Current medicine has no cure. I will continue to be my own single case design. I am persistent.

  16. I can deeply relate. I am 42 and got sick after getting pregnant at 25. I have since been diagnosed (at 39) with pathogenic gut infections, Sjogren’s Syndrome (which has led to 20k + in dental work), Lupus SLE, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Fibromyalgia. It’s hard to need to avoid ‘triggers’ all the time, others don’t understand how food or sun can hurt you, how some days you can look healthy but feel horribly and it feels so isolating to constantly feel some shade of bad for so long. That said, it’s true, you have to make the most of your life/time/experience and even if in pain, struggling, or not getting a cure, life IS worth finding joy in.

  17. Health is about balance of mind, body and spirit. Once balance is achieved you can live your full potential, follow your dreams and overcome any obstacle that life throws against you.