What does it mean to be healthy? Are there multiple parts or dimensions of health? For a time, health was largely defined solely by a person’s physical health. In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” They specifically stated that there is no health without mental health.
Many modern health practitioners have adopted the biopsychosocial model of health. This approach incorporates an examination of biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors to improve health and wellbeing. More recently, many practitioners are beginning to expand their definition of health to also include spiritual factors. We call this a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of health. That’s a mouthful. Let’s look at each of these dimensions of health to learn how they interact with each other and how we can use them to flourish.
Physical Health (Biological)
When considering our physical health we look at the biological, genetic, and physiological functioning of our bodies. There is a lot that can go into your physical health. We want to aim for true health, not just the absence of disease or injury. The goal is to increase your ability to realize your full potential. This means that we, of course, look at what we can do to heal from and prevent disease and injury. However, we also examine what we can do to help our bodies perform at their best.
The main areas that you can personally control to have the biggest impact on your physical health include nutrition (how you fuel your body), exercise and physical fitness, sleep and rest, and prophylaxis (following your doctor’s orders to prevent and treat disease). While you cannot control all factors related to your physical wellbeing, there are always actions you can take to improve your physical health.
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Mental Health (Psychological)
Good mental health examines a person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and mindset. You can be free of a diagnosable mental health condition and still struggle to experience mental wellbeing due to a pessimistic, cynical, or critical approach to life. Again, if our goal is to live to our full potential, we don’t just want to avoid a mental health disease, we also want to improve our ability to think positively and have a growth mindset.
We can examine each area of our mental health – our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets to help us recognize where we may need to focus. Often, we must practice and train ourselves to even notice the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs we are having. Then, once we notice what is happening in our mind, we are better able to intentionally make changes.
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Social Health (Social-Cultural)
Humans are communal creatures. God specifically created us to live and thrive in and for community. God wanted to live with us and wanted us to live with each other. Belonging and connection are vital aspects of our wellbeing. The quality of our relationships, the cultural influence we experience, and the living conditions in which we find ourselves can all have a major impact on the degree to which we flourish.
Isolation and feelings of loneliness are chronic problems in our modern world. It is easy to live behind our screens and interact with our community in minimal ways. Experiencing a sense of belonging is so incredibly important. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to build and nurture new relationships. Many of us have experienced pain from a person or group of people and wish to avoid exposing ourselves to more opportunities to be hurt. However, there are good people out there. There are communities built on love, support, and beautiful connection. We can seek them, join them, and even build them ourselves.
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In the world of science and research, spirituality has been defined in a number of ways. One of the most helpful definitions that I have found for spiritual health and wellbeing is a relationship with God (or a higher power), self, community, and environment that nurtures and celebrates wholeness. Spirituality involves all of the attitudes, beliefs, and relationships that foster connection with a higher power and meaning or purpose in life. Spiritual health takes you out of the world of “I” and connects you with a purpose that is greater than yourself.
Religion and spirituality are not necessarily interchangeable phrases. Religion involves specific beliefs, practices, rituals, and institutional factors that guide followers of that specific religion. Spirituality helps you transcend and connect with others in meaningful expansive ways. Religion is more a personal experience and a social construct that is defined by boundaries. You do not have to be religious or follow a specific religion to practice spirituality.
Enhancing spiritual health can involve a variety of practices. A large part of spiritual health involves finding meaning and purpose and improving connectedness (with others and God). Possible ways to increase spiritual health include introspection and reflection, discussion, reading spiritual texts, service activities, or meditation and prayer.
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How These 4 Dimensions of Health Work Together
Research has discovered that these four dimensions of health actually have both a synergistic and reciprocal effect on each other. Interventions that seek to improve one of these areas can foster increased health in the other areas.
We know that spiritual activities help to relax the sympathetic nervous system and enhance the function of our immune system which can improve our physical health. It has also been found that religious people tend to live longer.
Spirituality also helps to promote hopefulness and meaning in life even for people with fatal diseases which can support mental health.
People with chronic physical conditions are at higher risk of poor mental health and are more likely to lack spiritual and social connections. Likewise, people with serious mental illnesses are more likely to experience a chronic physical illness due to a weakened immune system.
Full health is experienced when a person is able to function at a level that allows them to realize their full potential. This is flourishing. It takes an intentional focus on all four of these dimensions of health to provide us with the highest possibility of experiencing this type of flourishing.
You may have heard the saying that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”. This is true in the case of our health. When we focus on and improve our physical health by working out more, we also experience improved mental health. If we intentionally work to improve our relationships we can enhance both our social health and our mental health. Connecting with others in meaningful ways not only improves our social health but also plays a role in our spiritual health. It is all related and each area is important for us to live the full, abundant, and thriving life that God desires for us.
Today’s Action Step
Consider an activity that you can do today that will have an impact on multiple dimensions of health as described above. Perhaps you go for a walk in nature to help enhance your physical and mental health. You could meet with a friend to pray and discuss something you’re learning about God to meet both social and spiritual needs. Many of the activities we do each day impact our health in multiple ways. Begin to make intentional choices with your activities that can improve your health and help you thrive.
Additional Resources and References
Agnieszka, B., Paweł N.F., Mateusz, B. (2020). The relationship between spirituality, health-related behavior, and psychological well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1997. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01997
Dalmida S. G. (2006). Spirituality, mental health, physical health, and health-related quality of life among women with HIV/AIDS: integrating spirituality into mental health care. Issues in mental health nursing, 27(2), 185–198. https://doi.org/10.1080/01612840500436958
Ellison CW. (1983). Spiritual well-being: Conceptualization and measurement. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 11(4):330–340.
Shah, Syed Ashiq Ali. (2017). Physical, mental, and spiritual health: Triad of happiness and tranquility. Keynote address presented at “International Conference of Health Psychology: Issues and Challenges. Department of Psychology. GC University Lahore, Pakistan (26-28 April, 2017).
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