Health Psychology: Definition and Characteristics

Health Psychology and Positive Psychology are the disciplines that study health from a biopsychosocial perspective, analyze risk and protective factors, and promote the development and quality of life of the individual.
Health Psychology: Definition and Characteristics
Bernardo Peña

Written and verified by el psicólogo Bernardo Peña.

Last update: 12 March, 2021

Health Psychology is defined, according to Oblitas (2006), as “the discipline that applies the principles, techniques, and knowledge of Psychology to the evaluation, diagnosis, prevention, explanation, treatment and/or modification of physical and/or mental disorders or other behavior relevant to health and disease processes, in the different contexts they may take place in”. Among the main benefits of Health Psychology we have:

  • Promotion of health
  • Prevention of diseases, through the modification of bad habits
  • Treatment of chronic diseases (diabetes, HIV, irritable bowel, cancer…)
  • Adherence to treatment
  • Evaluation and improvement of the health system

Health Psychology: a biopsychosocial perspective

Core values.
In people’s lives, we observe that many diseases have multiple causes. This means that they can’t be explained without biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. That’s why Health Psychology places a special emphasis on pointing out the importance of each of them.

Unfortunately, the traditional medical model marginalized the psychosocial causes of illness, or, at best, left them in the background. These days, there’s sufficient scientific evidence to be able to affirm that part of the causes of the disease lie in the individual’s behavior and lifestyle.

A study carried out by Oblitas (2007) in the USA showed a very close relationship between health and the following habits:

  • Sleeping 8 hours a night
  • Eating breakfast daily
  • Eating 3 meals a day
  • Maintaining a normal weight
  • Doing exercise
  • Moderating alcohol consumption
  • Not smoking

Health Psychology and Positive Psychology

Positive psychology studies the foundations of psychological well-being and happiness, as well as human strengths. Therefore, it’s a new approach to psychology (which almost from the beginning focused on the pathological elements of personality and emotions).

Health Psychology and Positive Psychology converge thanks to the fact that they study the factors that protect people from physical and mental illnesses, always focusing on the positive aspects and quality of life.

Positive psychology.

Seligman (2003) points out a set of positive behavior patterns that can help to achieve happiness, explaining that happiness isn’t a state that comes out of nothing. Happiness is created by acting in a way that’s valuable to the individual, their environment, and the community.

Cognitive strengths: Use and acquisition of knowledge

  • Curiosity and interest in the world and discovering new things daily
  • Cultivating a love of knowledge and learning
  • Judgment, critical thinking, and an open mind
  • Wit, originality, and practical intelligence
  • Being able to advise and help others

Emotional strengths that involve the achievement of goals

  • Courage: not being intimidated by the threat or changes
  • Perseverance: Finishing the projects that are started
  • Integrity, honesty, and authenticity
  • Vitality and passion for things

Interpersonal strengths

  • Ability to love and be loved
  • Sympathy, kindness, and generosity
  • Emotional, personal, and social intelligence

Community strengths

  • Working well within a group of people, being faithful to the group and feeling good within it
  • Having a sense of justice and equity
  • Assuming social leadership functions

Strengths that protect from excesses

  • The ability to forgive
  • Modesty and humility
  • Prudence, discretion, and caution
  • Self-control and self-regulation

Strengths that provide meaning to life

  • An appreciation of beauty and excellence, a capacity for wonder
  • Gratitude
  • Hope, optimism, and planning for the future
  • A sense of humor
  • Spirituality, faith, and religious orientation

Health psychology and healthy behavior

Sports equipment.
Healthy lifestyles are one of the central points of study within Health Psychology. Healthy behavior is understood to include all actions carried out by a person that can increase the likelihood that they’ll obtain greater physical and mental well-being, as well as increasing their longevity. That said, Health Psychology proposes the following healthy behavior patterns:

Practicing physical exercise

We know that the practice of physical exercise prevents the appearance of certain physical diseases and endows the individual with a higher quality of life. People who exercise have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Also, it helps to maintain weight and normalize the metabolism. On the other hand, exercising has innumerable psychological benefits, such as mitigating the effects of stress, anxiety and depression on health. In addition, it improves self-concept, and favors social relationships.

Proper nutrition

Healthy diets provide the right amount of essential nutrients for the body’s metabolic needs. The main causes of morbidity and mortality during the past decade have been mainly due to unhealthy lifestyle habits and inadequate nutrition.

Among the healthiest eating habits, Health Psychology proposes increasing the consumption of milk, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, and fiber. In addition to this, it recommends reducing animal fats, sugar, sweets, refined flours, and alcohol.

Minimize negative emotions

Negative emotions lead to health problems. In addition to exacerbating the psychological and physiological factors that alter health, they can also influence it indirectly. For example, by carrying out unhealthy behavior to minimize the impact of these negative emotions (for example, consuming alcohol).

In this way, both the strengths and coping mechanisms of the individual will put a brake on the negative emotions. In addition, the capacity for selfcontrol, self-regulation, and adaptation to change will provide mechanisms to deal with any negative emotions that may arise.

Optimism, good humor, and laughter

A happy woman.
The main difference between optimistic and pessimistic people lies in the way they appreciate things:
  • Pessimists insist on pointing out obstacles and difficulties that cause them apathy and discouragement
  • Optimists make great efforts to find creative solutions, advantages, and possibilities.

Generally, the most optimistic people have a greater sense of humor, are more persevering and successful, and even maintain better physical and emotional health. In addition, a sense of humor and laughter serves as an escape valve to relieve internal tensions and cause a more active and vital state that protects against stress and other negative emotions.

Adherence to treatment

One of the conditions for maintaining the quality of life and health is being able to comply with the therapeutic program set by the doctor and the psychosocial team. It’s very easy to tell a patient to stop smoking, but making sure that this person stops smoking for their own good is something very different. Health Psychology specifically set out to intervene and motivate the person in the fulfillment of the therapeutic plan.


Creativity is understood as our ability to solve problems in an original way, in addition to creating new and valuable things. Therefore, being able to solve problems in an original way is very satisfying, and allows us to adjust to certain life situations successfully.


On the other hand, inflexibility, rigidity, and narrow-mindedness make us fall into stress and despair. So, being creative is a healthy way to deal with these situations.

Health psychology and risky behavior

Some habits and behavior pose a health risk. Therefore, Health Psychology sets out to investigate these risks, with the ultimate aim of understanding how they affect our health. This is in addition to establishing strategies to avoid risk factors. Below, we’re going to outline the main contributions of Health Psychology in this field:

The adoption of safe behavior patterns

Accidents are one of the main causes of death. Most of them are caused by people’s behavior (using weapons, at work, car accidents, etc.). Health Psychology points out that most accidents could be avoided. For example, in the case of traffic accidents, some prevention measures could be adopted:

  1. Eliminating access to the physical person (by not allowing people under 18 to drive).
  2. Reducing the person’s potential to cause harm (by limiting the power and speed of the vehicles).
  3. Preventing the person’s freedom (by imposing security and restraint measures on the vehicles).
  4. Changing dangerous surfaces, structures, or products.
  5. Promoting behavioral change through information and awareness campaigns.


In recent years, psychological techniques for quitting smoking have improved. Among those with the most scientific evidence are the techniques of rapid smoking and holding the smoke, as well as the technique of gradually reducing the consumption of nicotine and tar. It’s still necessary to work on adherence to treatment and management of relapses.


Some of the most successful treatments are those carried out in families (training in communication and conflict resolution) and in schools (early detection of consumption, training programs in social competence, etc.).

Glass of whisky.

In this way, intervening in the educational and family environment reduces the risk factors for youth alcoholism.

Drug use and abuse

Illegal drugs pose a potential health hazard. Not only for their pharmacological effects, but also due to many other factors: the environment and context in which it’s consumed, the route of administration, the lack of control over the dose, and the number of impurities that the drug contains, etc.

In addition to this, there are also social problems such as citizen insecurity, drug trafficking, crimes, robberies, etc. Finally, don’t forget its influence on academic, work, social, and family spheres. Due to all of this, Health Psychology places special emphasis on the prevention of drug use, through information and awareness campaigns.

Safe sex

Every year millions of people contract sexually transmitted diseases (such as gonorrhea, herpes, or HIV). The increase in the incidence of these diseases in the youth population is especially alarming.

A condom.

Health Psychology places a special emphasis on the prevention of risky sexual behavior. Information is also offered to young people through campaigns that offer another perspective, such as safe and responsible sexuality, using prophylactic methods.

Conclusions about Health Psychology

In conclusion, we have seen an introduction to Health Psychology in this article, along with its definition and main characteristics. We’re left with the idea that disease and illness must be approached from a bio-psycho-social perspective.

Therefore, the psychological, emotional, environmental and cultural elements have a lot to do with the development and follow-up of many illnesses and diseases. For example, thinking about risk and protective factors, and about implementing healthy habits. What we do or don’t do, and our cognitive and physical behavior have a lot to do with health and disease.

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