August 2014

One person is regularly plagued by annoying allergies, another has suffered from panic attacks for years, whereas others have to suddenly deal with life-threatening diagnoses. Anyone who is ill generally knows and feels it sooner or later. But what does it feel like to be healthy exactly? What does this state mean for us? And what do we do to stay healthy? In its constitution from 1946 the World Health Organization (WHO) defines healthiness as being “a state of complete physical and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. But what do the people in Europe and the USA associate with health? To what extent do they feel personally responsible and act accordingly?

No measles, no coughing, no fever – healthy people have a reason to be cheerful and this absence of illness is often seen as the primary definition of healthiness. After all, in most countries people firstly associate the absence of illness with the definition of health. Only in Germany and the USA is this aspect mentioned in second place. For Americans health primarily means looking after yourself. The Germans particularly think along the lines of physical performance and fitness. These are the findings of the “Self Care” study, for which the GfK Verein conducted an online poll of around 9,000 people from eight different countries, namely France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA, via GfK Switzerland in March 2014.

In most countries the top three associations are the same, whereby both the Southern Europeans and Switzerland and Sweden frequently associate a healthy balance between body and mind with a good state of health. In addition to this balance, the feeling of being in harmony with yourself is also mentioned in these countries. The picture looks different in Germany, the UK and the USA. In the two Anglo-Saxon countries people tend to think more in terms of physical fitness, performance capacity and looking after yourself when asked to describe the definition in more detail. This need to look after yourself is not a top priority amongst Germans. They define health in a very performance-based manner, with physical performance capability in first place, followed by the absence of illness and, in third place, mental fitness.

Those who strive for balance feel healthier

In 2010 alone around US$ 6.5 billion were spent on people’s health worldwide, according to WHO figures. Medical advances and rising life expectancy in the industrialized nations will probably cause the healthcare market to grow further in the coming years. At this junction it is hard to say to what extent this spending will lead to the greater well-being of individuals. At least respondents in the surveyed countries are currently very satisfied with their state of health. Nevertheless, there are definitely differences between the individual nations. It is noticeable that the people who associate health with a feeling of harmony and balance are apparently more satisfied with their current state of health than those for whom health is largely associated with physical capability. That is to say, almost three quarters of Swiss are happy with their state of health, followed by the Spanish (69%) and the Swedes (64%). Conversely, in the UK, where respondents mainly associate health with physical and performance aspects, only half gave a positive response. The UK also has the most people (30%) who are struggling with their state of health. And even the high-achieving Germans tend to give mediocre ratings when it comes to satisfaction, with only 56% relaxed about their physical and mental health.

Taking responsibility: do-it-yourself health

Frequently it is up to the person themselves if they want to improve their state of health. At the end of the day most people decide independently whether they have enough exercise, eat healthily, go to the doctors if they have any ailments or take their medication regularly. The majority of respondents agreed that they are personally responsible for their own physical and mental well-being. However, the scores of the individual countries vary considerably. Those who, like the Germans, place the most emphasis on physical performance capability or, like the Americans, associate being healthy with looking after yourself are apparently also willing to take personal responsibility. Hence, three quarters of Germans and 68% of Americans see health as the responsibility of each individual. However, it is the Swedes, who strive for inner harmony, who feel the most responsible for their own health, with almost 80% saying that primarily they feel that their state of health is down to them. In Switzerland roughly three quarters of those polled share this view. By comparison, the French and Spanish feel that their health is less in their own hands, although the majority express the opinion that they should look after their personal well-being themselves. Having said that, one should not forget that different health systems have been established in all these countries, which require differing degrees of individual self-responsibility.

Germany: more self-responsibility in old age

In Germany the feeling of self-responsibility is very pronounced overall, with more men than women saying that they feel personally responsible for their state of health. Regardless of gender, more and more people are finding as they get older that they must actively work to ensure their physical and mental well-being. While one in ten of men in the 20-30 age group still refuse to accept the principle of self-responsibility, not even one in twenty of the over fifties see it this way. The number of women agreeing to take personal responsibility for health also increases with age.

Information sourcing behavior: wanting to know what keeps you healthy

Those wishing to look after their own physical and mental well-being need one thing above all, namely the right information. Interest in health issues is not the same in all countries. While in Spain only around one third of those polled want to find out more about preventative medical check-ups, illness symptoms or treatment options, the figure in Italy is an impressive 61%. Thus, the Italians are shown to be particularly inquisitive compared to other countries. In the UK and the USA, i.e. in countries where health is above all defined by “taking good care of myself“, one in two indicate an interest. Conversely, in France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, only a little more than 40% are quite or very interested in the subject of health.

Preference for online research

Anyone searching the internet for health information will be confronted with 80 million hits. The internet is also the main source of information for most consumers and ranks in first place amongst the five most used sources in all countries. Italians are the most frequent surfers in search of useful information about health on the web. And in Sweden and the USA almost one in four regularly go online to search for information.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist!

As we all know, it is advisable to read the instructions on medication for risks and side-effects as well as to consult your doctor or pharmacist. The respondents certainly took this to heart. Especially for people in Southern Europe doctors and nurses are key providers of information and rank second in these countries. In other countries consumers prefer to rely on experiences from personal contacts. Family, friends and acquaintances are the second most important source of information after the internet in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. Additionally, if grandmas, uncles or best friends are at a loss, people will turn to specialist reading material. While the Swiss and the Germans quench their thirst for knowledge with the help of health magazines, such as the “Apotheken-Umschau”, many other respondents favored textbooks on the subject, with literature on health featuring in the top 5 of frequently used sources in seven countries. Books are taken down from the shelf particularly frequently in Sweden, with one in ten regularly using them.

Happiness makes you healthy

However many health guides you buy, however many doctors and nurses you know or with however many online users you discuss subjects ranging from acne to tick bites, health means different things to different people and is therefore a highly personal matter. Therefore, you should go about preserving it in a highly personal manner, which is why sometimes you do not need any painful injections or bitter pills, but above all a zest for life. At least this is what the French philosopher and writer Voltaire prescribed himself. The text on his prescription is reported to have read: “I have decided to be happy because it’s good for my health“.

Data source: GfK Verein (Study “Self Care”, March 2014)

If you have any queries concerning this article, please contact Claudia Gaspar, e-mail:

August 2014