Character  &  Context

Creating a New Definition of What It Means To Be Healthy

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By Lauren Howe

What does being healthy mean to you? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “complete physical, mental, and social well-being - and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” But research suggests that, despite this, Americans may still define health in a narrow way.

In new research presented during the Diet and Exercise in a Social World session at the SPSP Annual Convention today, Danielle Boles and her colleagues asked Americans what being healthy means. People overwhelmingly mentioned “the absence of illness,” neglecting other factors. In some cases, Americans defined health as what they did not have. For instance, people who defined health as “mental balance” were those who worried the most and got the least sleep. Could defining health by what we’re struggling to get lead to stress, ultimately undermining health?

We may also have narrow ideas about where we can be healthy. The WHO stresses that physical activity is crucial for health – but exercising seems unusual in many everyday settings. Research by Andrew Ward found that people view exercise as something that you can’t do everywhere. For instance, people reported that it would be almost as unusual to see someone doing jumping jacks in an airport as someone setting a car on fire! This might stop people from thinking about everyday opportunities for exercise.

Many health messages target obesity. For instance, the WHO calls it a global epidemic. Obesity is indeed one of America’s biggest health problems. But focusing on weight might have unintended consequences. Overweight people face social disapproval, such as being seen as lazy, weak-willed, or worthless. Research by Angelina Incollingo Rodriguez and others suggests that dealing with social disapproval could make overweight people unhealthier. The researchers gave people with normal body weight the experience of being overweight by having them wear fat suits. When wearing a fat suit, people ate more unhealthy food: 191 more calories of M&Ms, potato chips, and soda. Focusing too much on weight in definitions of health might lead to a vicious cycle.

So what can we do? Broadening definitions of healthiness to might have benefits. A growing body of research shows that social ties are as important for our health as diet and exercise. Boles and her colleagues explored whether people see what you have to do to be healthy as “social” or “isolating.” When people believed health is social, rather than isolating, they had healthier behaviors. The importance of social connection has become a focus of some recent healthcare campaigns. Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign features ads that say “Make time for we time” and “Hugs are healthy.”

Acknowledging the role that our social lives play in healthcare settings could be one important step forward for healthcare in the United States.


Lauren Howe is a 5th year PhD candidate in social psychology at Stanford University and the Shaper Family Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow. Her research interests include rejection, patient-physician interactions, and trust in experts.

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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