Philosophy of health and healthcare

I’ve been thinking for a while about what the word “health” means.  As always, when wondering what’s behind a word, I consulted the dictionary for the first interpretation.  Mirriam-Webster defines health as: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit.”  The Oxford English Dictionary takes a slightly less holistic approach and defines it as: “The state of being free from illness or injury; A person’s mental or physical condition.”  The root of the word is of Germanic origin, having migrated over to the English centuries ago as “hǣlth”, and is related to the word for “whole”.  This seems more like it.


The thing is that like defining “happiness”, it becomes a little dicey when applying it to individuals.  In college I took a lot of philosophy, and one day in class we were discussing happiness or the good life in terms of the Epicureans.  The modern usage of the word “epicurean” is often used to mean someone of cultivated tastes who appreciates the finer things, especially as pertaining to food and drink, and can run close to hedonism.  This is far from the intention of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who, while placing pleasure high on the list of what constitutes the good life, also preached a gospel of everyday temperance, advocating that his followers drink watery beer and porridge as their main sustenance.  This would make it so that when one did have good food or drink, it would taste all the better.

My argument in the class was is that this isn’t the good or happy life for all people.  Some people might be miserable eating porridge every day, and the rare occasions when they didn’t eat it they might be even unhappier for thinking that they would have to go back to porridge.  For whatever reason, my classmates weren’t buying it at the time, but as I’ve gotten older, it seems all the truer.  Each person has their own life paradigm: their core set of beliefs, what makes them happy, and how they choose to live their life.   What I’ve realized as a healthcare provider is that this extends to what constitutes “health”.  For some people, it’s worth it to do something typically regarded as “unhealthy” because of what it brings to their life.

Going back to the root of the word, what makes us healthy is what makes us whole.  Healthiness is being at peace with your body, mind and spirit.  Whatever brings you more in alignment with that should be taken in mind as a key component of your health, even if it’s outside of what a more common definition of “healthy” looks like.  If it’s something that isn’t good for your body to function long term but it brings you joy, the pros and cons should be carefully weighed out without value judgement.  It’s better to examine carefully what is going to bring us closer to an individual feeling of wholeness rather than dismiss it because it doesn’t fit into the mainstream paradigm.  It is up to both patient and provider to hold that seeming paradox, and to make a plan for wellness that is realistic and aims to optimize the patient’s overall health while accommodating for their life paradigm.