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“She lived a long and disease-free life, completely lacking in vitality and satisfaction” – few would aspire to this epitaph. Yet when we think about health our definition often extends only to a lack of illness into old age. We have come to view health through a negative lens: regardless of happiness or quality of life, it is possible to be seen as ‘healthy’ as long as we are not suffering from a specific physical disease. If this was our aim, as individuals or as a society, our wellbeing and ability to thrive is drastically limited.
Good health is a basic human right, beyond the absence of illness. So, what can be done?
I want to flourish in life, no just get by
Should we not empower by reframing health in the positive? Framing health as something we lack, rather than something we can actively achieve, makes it a passive concept. It can even seem that our disease-free state justifies our unhealthy behaviours. While we know that activities like smoking and drinking alcohol are unhealthy, they are socially accepted as fine in moderation until a specific illness manifests. Reframing health as something we do rather than something we have (or do not have) empowers people to make that change.
But habits don’t form in a vacuum. We need supportive communities to ensure people have the social and informational resources they need to make change. Social isolation and loneliness are linked with a 30% increase in risk of heart disease and stroke. On the other hand, those who are connected have better physical and mental health, and, importantly, lead happier lives. Well-connected people are more likely to exercise while community group membership can provide a sense of purpose in life. Community groups can specifically target healthier behaviours such as healthy eating or exercise, normalising these activities and also providing peer-to-peer education and natural support networks.
But individuals and communities need money and resources to flourish. Poverty has a negative effect on health and poor health increases the risk of poverty: a vicious cycle that needs to be broken to create a healthy society. Accessible education, funded training, and ample employment are vital to ensure people reach their full potential. This realisation of potential then enables people to contribute back to society, creating a virtuous circle that breaks down societal boundaries.
A focus on creating the conditions for health
In order to thrive, not just survive, we need to ensure that individuals actively participate towards their own good health, that communities are connected in order to propel this change, and that sufficient resources are available to allow this empowerment to begin.