What is Health? (Part 1)
Maybe it’s because I’m down with a cold or maybe it’s because I’ve worked in “wellness” for a long time now, but recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be healthy. We all know how precious our health is, but what does it actually mean to be healthy?
I know this is a BIG topic. So big that's taken me weeks to really think this email through. But even though it's a really complicated topic, I thought it was worth tackling, because well, life is only as good as health allows.
Let's start with this thought: isn't it strange that most of us find it MUCH, MUCH easier to identify when we’re not feeling or acting healthy than to define what it means to be completely healthy? We have a ton of words to describe feeling less than healthy. Words like: fatigued, stressed, anxious, uncomfortable, achy, sore, in pain, down, off-balance, depressed, or just downright sick.
And yet what does it mean to be healthy? Does it mean just not being physically sick or having a mentally disruptive condition? Does it mean living a long life? Does it mean being able to run for an hour on the treadmill? What if you live to be over a hundred, even with a mental or physical condition? Is that still considered healthy?
And if you try Googling “what it means to be healthy,” almost every search result that comes up will focus on weight. Yet we know that weight is not a good indication of health. Body fat percentage, which is not the same as weight, can be a somewhat better indicator of health outcomes. But even then, think about all the people you know that have lost weight AND body fat BECAUSE of an illness like cancer, depression, eating disorders, Crohn’s disease, HIV, etc. Or people who have gained weight because of a recovery from one of these conditions or simply because they are happily basking in the honeymoon of a new relationship. Or the fact that neither skinny nor fit people are immune to mental disorders, cancer, inflammatory conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure or even heart attacks!
Despite all of this, people in my industry, the “wellness” industry, will constantly try to convince you that having a low body fat percentage and visible abs is ideal for good health. But let me just say right here that this is false and ridiculous - because body fat is just one small part of the vastly larger picture of health.
You might be thinking, “well obesity is a real problem” or “you’re just saying that because you’re chubby.”
Well obesity can be a problem. And yes I’m chubby. But I know plenty of people who are much thinner than me and have no idea what it means to be healthy.
Thin people who can’t sleep at night.
Thin people who have chronic pain, fatigue, inflammation, anxiety and/or depression.
Thin people who’ve gotten cancer
Very thin people who don’t drink water or eat vegetables and think coffee for breakfast and alcohol for dinner constitutes a perfectly balanced diet.
Skinny people who don’t know the last time they experienced joy, self-love, fulfillment or gratitude for their life.
My point is, that being healthy is waaaaaayyyyyy more than being thin.
And I think we all know this really. But it’s still hard to put our fingers on exactly what it is to be healthy. So I went ahead and did some research.
The best definition of “healthy” that I found was from the World Health Organization that defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. PHYSICAL + MENTAL + SOCIAL wellbeing.
I know what you're thinking because I'm thinking it, too. That sounds really nice and makes a lot of sense. But if I’m really honest with myself, most days, healthy just means doing what I task myself to do each day without my body, mind or emotions getting in the way. Which is to say, I have been defining health as: functioning without having to give a second thought to how it all runs.
And while that may not be the greatest way to look at health, our societies are increasingly trying to convince us that everything is fine as long as we aren’t hungover, unproductive, fat or overly wrinkly.
But is that really good enough?
I've thought about it A LOT and I'm not really convinced. So I did a whole lot of digging and I've found 3 really good templates for addressing this thing called 'health.'
The first template I came across, unsurprisingly, came from my yoga studies and it's called: the koshas. Koshas are what the yogis say that human beings are made up of. They're described as five “sheaths” that are layered over some universal spirit inside us (kind of like Russian dolls that become less tangible the further in you get.)
Looking at it from a modern day perspective, you might interpret some of these layers to be made up of things like our subconscious and our emotional/instinctual selves, our consciousness, our senses, our life force and our bodies. But the interesting thing about this model of the self is that yogis believed that diseases always started from the deepest layers (like the subconscious self) and eventually manifested themselves outwards until it reached the physical body. Basically, they postulated that to be healthy, first you have to be happy!
From this point of view, we could try to be healthy from the outside in (work from the body to the conscious to the subconscious), from the inside out or by addressing all the layers simultaneously. But no matter how you tackle health, you have to also address happiness in order to tackle the root cause of any imbalance.
The yogis, of course, created all sorts of practices to address these layers (physical postures, dietary practices, breath exercises, meditation, contemplation, devotional practices, lifestyle and morality guidelines, cleansing rituals, spiritual study, massage, selfless action etc.) And of course, there are countless variations of these practices that are available in the modern world.
If you've ever taken a yoga class, then you know that you can get sucked into thinking that one practice - like posture practice - is going to be enough to maintain good health. But when you look at it from the perspective of koshas, it becomes clear that a typical yoga class alone is not going to be enough.
So I came across another template that you find more specific. You've probably heard of it before. It's Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
I know, right? Good ol' Maslow.
I came across this little pyramid way back in college during a behavioral science class or something was as boring as the name suggests. But turns out this template can be a really great tool to help us check in with ALL of the facets of health (PHYSICAL + MENTAL + SOCIAL).
Basically, you can go through each category and create a checklist for yourself. I've created one for you but you can add or subtract based on what you think makes sense.
Basic Physiological Needs:
Basic Safety Needs:
Stable sense of well-being
Belongingness and Love Needs:
Positive and stable family relationships
Positive and stable intimate relationships
Positive and stable friendships
A sense of community (through sports, religion, hobby, lifestyle, co-workers, etc.)
Someone to confide in
Unconditional love from others
Regular, in-person interactions with positive people who you like and make you feel good.
Respect from others
Acceptance and a feeling of being valued by others
Unconditional love for ourselves
Positive outlook on life
Desire and room for self-growth
Time and desire to give attention to self
Utilization one's abilities and talents
Satisfaction with life
Sense of humor (that is "life-affirming" and no sarcastic)
Feeling of independence
Desire for transcendence/Desire to go beyond oneself
Maslow's hierarchy more or less implies that if all of our needs are met, then we will become fulfilled (aka Happy!). Based on this principle, we can also infer that happy = healthy! That if we meet all our needs, then our healthy is completely taken care of.
I hope I've given you a lot of good and useful stuff to think about and maybe widened the scope in which you think about your own health. I have one more template that I'm really excited to share with you. ForI found it to be the most fascinating fo the three. But because this is already such a long email, I'll be continuing this conversation in the next email. Keep an eye out for it and stay healthy!