Is being healthy an individual choice? Looking behind the science of the individualist approach.
So, here we are again. After we defined what health is, we know that the interconnection between mental, physical and social health is undeniable.
If we look at modern conventional medicine the most common conception of health and illness is based on an individualist approach. A person gets sick because he or she either had an injury, a virus or a bacterial infection. In other cases, it can be caused by genetics, the environment and lifestyle choices.
If we look into non- communicable diseases, the later is the common cause of them. As I don’t want to sound too nerdy, non- communicable diseases are health conditions that can develop over a certain amount of time due to an unhealthy lifestyle. Some of the most common being - heart disease, diabetes, cancer and auto-immune conditions.
1. Why is your health not completely your choice?
Unhealthy lifestyle choices can be influenced by social standards. We know that certain groups have a higher risk of getting specific diseases during their lifetime. Men are more prone to heart-diseases, people in western society have a high risk of being a candidate for diabetes. This most of the times has nothing to do with genetics, it's due to learned and internalized behaviour that is prominent in an individuals environment.
Example: Sitting in a chair from 9 to 5 is still the norm for many office jobs. Various studies have shown that sitting for a period longer than 45 minutes can decrease your life expectancy up to 7 years, which is being compared to the health effects of smoking cigarettes. Some companies are realising that the constant sitting can be more damaging than thought as standing desks are getting slowly introduced into cooperate life.
2. Why your culture will define your taste buds- whether you like it or not
Being born into a culture is not a choice. We may decide to dislike or change our cultural belonging as we mature, but during our childhood, the social identity, language, religion, food, social norms, arts and habits around us are mostly environmental. We soak them up and they start to have an impact on us.
Think about it. What is defined normal in your culture? What do you might think is totally absurd about another culture? This goes from food choices, religion and beauty standards to the way we dress for a funeral. Even small differences in cultures that seem to be almost similar at first glance can cause a big controversy.
There is a widespread controversy in Germany about the horsemeat consumption in Austria. As Germans are not a fan of it and are finding the thought of eating horsemeat utterly disgusting and cruel. In Austria, a country very close in terms of culture and language to Germany, horsemeat is not an uncommon dish and normal variation on their plate. Find an article in German about the phenomena here.
When we know that the social norms around us influence and shape our way of thinking and behaviour to a certain level, and especially those of younger people, we can see why certain diseases are more embedded in some regions of the world.
Fast food is advertised to low-income communities as a “cool” food choice. Food deserts in the United States make it extremely hard for those people to change their diet and create a healthier way of living. The widespread assumption that obese people are lazy, irrational and have a lack of discipline creates a stigmatization and studies even found out that obese people are treated less compassionate at hospitals when receiving health care.
3. If so many health issues a community related, why are there some people that are healthy and others that are not?
It can be said as a conclusion, that disease and illness, especially (chronic) noncommunicable diseases, are triggered by the individual's behaviour. This behaviour is influenced by cultural norms, society and the social identity of the individual. How it is possible that some individuals from the same social environment have a sufficient health behaviour than others?
Research shows that every individual deals differently with their environment and what they believe to be of importance for their life. It can happen that two siblings are growing up in the same family, the same environment and culture - and one of the siblings develops unhealthy behaviours.
4. The common mistakes we cannot avoid
Social norms can be so strong that we might actually start believing them. We all heard the saying “A real man needs meat.” There are even magazines for meat-based diets that specifically target men with their marketing. Gender is one of the main factors why the social norms are barely spread in every culture and have their impact for centuries, often not fully recognized by the individuals, they just act like “a boy” or behave like a “good girl” in a sentence of the traditional gender concept. It can be explained by different perceptions of culture, some people see the cultural norms as something they can benefit from, others do not internalize these norms, others do not even realize that the intentions and motivations are led by society and are influenced by these norms subconsciously.
We can say that health is widely influenced by cultural and social inputs in many different ways. But to get a bigger picture we have to know what influences culture. It is a reciprocal circle between culture and individuals and societies, are we creating our own culture or are we adapting to the common norms?
Some people adapt more to the culture they grew up in, others do not identify themselves which the norms of society where they live in and refuse to adopt these norms, but they are still influenced. Looking at cultures, the western culture has globally the main impact on a dietary pattern, eating behaviour and health beliefs, and even if you are not in support of the social conditioning, you are still affected by them.
5. How does culture influence health in other countries?
Even the fact, that a society is more individualistic, is a cultural fact which has an effect on health. The increasing social dislocation, later marriage, more single households and social mobility leads to social isolation, especially older people and millennials are having poorer health outcomes affected by loneliness and social isolation.
Our mind is not only influenced by social norms, our body itself has an impact on our mood. The link between physical and mental health is probably the main reason for many people to go jogging in the morning, not quitting the workout, even it seems like too much and to feel so rejuvenated after a session of yoga.
Share your personal opinion on Social Health in the comments!