Tag: Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion

Defining Health

Defining Health


WHO definition of Health

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

The Definition has not been amended since 1948.

This is a pretty idealistic view of health and does not take into account people with a mental or physical disability, who by the above definition are not healthy. Athletes who took part in the Paralympics in London in 2012 may disagree with the above as perhaps would Stephen Fry, who publicly discussed his own Bipolar disorder. The word ‘complete’ is controversial

However it allows us to list the:




These 3 aspects of health take us beyond a biophysical definition.


There are other classificatory systems in existence such as the WHO Family of International Classifications, including the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). These are commonly used to define and measure the components of health.

The WHO’s 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion further stated that health is not just a state, but also “a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”

So in this charter, health is seen as a ‘resource’.

The WHO also defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Again this might sound a bit too idealistic in that people with a mental illness can also live ‘normal’ (whatever that is) lives. Why are they not healthy then?

The New Economics Foundation (Aked and Thompson 2011) argue that there are 5 ways to well-being (‘well-being’ is a component of health):

1. Connect…

With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

2. Be active…

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance.Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

3. Take notice…

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

4. Keep learning…

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.

5. Give…

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.

Social Determinants of Health

The approach that has gained influence is that of understanding health as having social determinants (WHO 2008), while Barton and Grant (2006) have developed a health map illustrating the complex interplay of the physical and global environment, social relationships and individual biology.

The social determinants of health approach (WHO 2008) suggests ‘Social justice is a matter of life and death. It affects the way people live, their consequent chance of illness, and their risk of premature death. We watch in wonder as life expectancy and good health continue to increase in parts of the world and in alarm as they fail to improve in others’.

Thus we clearly see a link between ideas about what health is and social justice. Health is therefore inextricably bound up with how we organise our societies. It is no longer to be understood as a bio-physical concept only. WHO argues:

‘The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, including the health system. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries’.

See http://www.who.int/social_determinants/en/  (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008).

The Health Map

see: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/7863/2/The_health_map_2006_JRSH_article_-_post_print.pdf

Barton and Grant at about the same time produced a ‘health map’ and argued:

‘The environment in which we live is a major determinant of health and well-being. Modern town planning originated in the nineteenth century in response to basic health problems, but in the intervening years has become largely divorced from health. We have been literally building unhealthy conditions into our local human habitat.


Recent concerns about levels of physical activity, obesity, asthma and increasing environmental inequality have put planning back on the health agenda. It is widely recognised that public health is being compromised by both the manner of human intervention in the natural world and the manner of development activity in our built environment (Larkin, 2003). However, taking action is not necessarily simple. The links between health and settlements are often indirect and complex. A tool to improve understanding and foster collaboration between planning and health decision-makers is badly needed’.

The health map was inspired by theories about how the eco system interacts with biological species, which is clearly seen in the outer ring. An implication of seeing health in this manner is that the individual’s health is caught up in a web of complex systems and requires the ‘health’ of all manner of interacting physical and non-physical phenomena.

Healthy Planet, Healthy Lives?

Another view firmly connects the planet to people as a unitary whole arguing that as a result an individual is not healthy if the planet is not. This critiques a dualist view of reality in which we can separate physical human bodies from the physical universe, seeing them as two distinct entities. This may seem obvious to those of us living in western societies, as this is how we are brought up to consider how the world is. This has a long tradition but other philosophical traditions make no distinction between ‘man’ and ‘nature’:

“In this century it has become clear that the fundamental social problem is now the relationship between humankind as a whole and our global environment” (Loy 1988 p 302).

David Loy (1988 p140) argues, when contrasting Eastern traditions (nondualist) with mainly Western (Cartesian) dualism, that

“….there is no distinction between “internal” (mental) and “external” (physical), which means that trees and rocks and clouds, if they are not juxtaposed in memory with the “I” concept, will be experienced to be as much “my” mind as thought and feelings”.

This then is a non-dualist viewpoint in which ‘us’ includes the biosphere, we are indivisible as human beings from all life forms and all matter.

Industrialization has required the control of nature to serve humanities purposes. This control is based upon seeing ‘the self’ in opposition to nature, which Yagelski (2011) calls  ‘the problem of the self ‘:

“My argument here is that the prevailing Western sense of the self as an autonomous, thinking being that exists separately from the natural or physical world is really at the heart of the life-threatening environmental problems we face”.


These problems include: Ocean acidification, fertile soil erosion, species loss and the loss of biodiversity, fish species depletion, imbalances in the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, fresh water scarcities, chemical pollution and stratospheric ozone depletion.

Rockström et al (2009) suggest that we need to urgently consider these issues to ensure there is a ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

Another view on health stemming from philosophers such as Aristotle who discussed eudaemonia or ‘flourishing’, or Amartya Sens’ views on ‘capabilities’ as an aspect of human health welfare:

Sen argued for five components in assessing ‘capability’:

1. The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage.

2. Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities.

3. The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness.

4. A balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare.

5. Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society.

This really stretches definitions of health to include ideas around welfare and the social and economic conditions for it.


Health involves our physical selves, the biology of our bodies which does not have to ‘perfect’. However health also involves our mental well-being, our abilities to cope with the world. Health involves social relationships and communities. Health involves our relationship to eco systems and other species. Health is therefore a complex concept that can be defined in various ways according to the perspectives we care to take on it.

Aked, J., and Thompson, S. (2011) Five ways to wellbeing. New applications, new ways of thinking. New Economics Foundation. London http://www.neweconomics.org/sites/neweconomics.org/files/Five_Ways_to_Wellbeing.pdf

Barton, H. and Grant, M. (2006) A health map for the local human

habitat.  The Journal for the Royal Society for the Promotion of

Health, 126 (6). pp. 252-253. ISSN 1466-4240

Larkin, M., (2003), Can cities be designed to fight obesity, The Lancet, 362, pp1046-7

Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P., K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B., Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. (2009). Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

World Health Organization. (1986) The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. Adopted at the First International Conference on Health Promotion, Ottawa, 21 November 1986 – WHO/HPR/HEP/95.1.

World Health Organization (2004). Promoting Mental Health: Concepts, Emerging evidence, Practice: A report of the World Health Organization, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in collaboration with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and the University of Melbourne. World Health Organization. Geneva

Yagelski, R. [online] Computers, Literacy and Being. Teaching with technology for a sustainable futurehttp://www.albany.edu/faculty/rpy95/webtext/

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