How Having a Purpose Can Lead to Better Health
Does your life have meaning? Does it have purpose? If you answered yes, here’s some good news: Studies show that having a purpose can lead to better health outcomes.
That’s the bottom line, but from there it gets a little murky. Let’s start with how we define what gives us meaning or purpose in life.
Family and time with family
When asked what gives them meaning in life, most Americans say family, according to the Pew Research Center. Even in surveys where questions have pre-populated answers, Americans choose “time with family” or “family” far more than other options, including career, faith, friends, hobbies, pets and their homes.
In fact, in open-ended questions, 69 percent of Americans mentioned family, twice the number of people who cited career and three times the number who said money or faith.
These numbers are consistent across demographic groups, generations, ethnicities and genders.
Meaning, purpose and your health
Of course, what is considered meaningful and purposeful differs for everyone. The science below explores the concept of defining meaning in your life, versus how it’s defined. But having a purpose is definitively correlated with better health outcomes as a 2019 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded. Just the presence of meaning in life is important for your health and well-being.
Studies have found a virtual cornucopia of health benefits from purpose and meaning:
- Stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality
- Meaning in life is positively correlated with more activity in older people and was beneficial to their health even when they couldn’t be active.
- Purpose helps cancer patients cope better.
- A high sense of purpose is associated with fewer cardiovascular events.
- A positive well-being is associated with lower rates of depression.
You might think the association is all in our head, so to speak — a positive outlook based on meaning or purpose results in positive outcomes. You wouldn’t be wrong to think that – many studies associate purpose with better mental health. In fact, purpose in life may be protective against negative emotional events.
This concept was first described by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl 70 years ago in his highly influential book Man’s Search for Meaning. Although Frankl’s suggestion that survivors of concentration camps may have benefited from a positive attitude has been criticized, there is evidence now that meaning and purpose can be helpful in highly stressful situations.
But the benefit goes beyond traumatic situations. Respondents in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry study who believed they had meaning in their lives had better mental health scores along with better cognitive health. Plenty of other studies show that higher levels of meaning in life are related to lower levels of depression.
Studies also showed the same relationship to physical health. And that’s a good illustration of how our mental and physical health is closely intertwined. Take the 2016 cardiovascular metanalysis mentioned above, published in the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine. Researchers looked at 10 studies including more than 130,000 patients and found lower rates of cardiovascular events among patients who had a defined purpose. They also found a lower mortality rate among those patients.
The researchers highlighted various reasons why physical health outcomes were better in people who said they had meaning in their lives, including:
- Lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
- Lower hemoglobin A1C in patients with diabetes mellitus
- Better immune function
- Better use of preventive health services by patients
- Higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) and lower waist-hip ratios
- Reduced rate of disrupted sleep patterns
- Lower smoking rates
The Search for Meaning
As we age, searching for meaning often decreases and the presence of meaning increases — as we get older, we find meaning and hold on to it — for as long as we can hold on to it.
There is an inverse relationship that’s part of aging. If we have meaning when we get older, our health outcomes are better. But if we’re still searching for meaning – or starting that search over because what we defined as meaningful is no longer so — our health outcomes are worse. This is why retirement is often jarring, especially for those whose purpose in life is tied closely with their career. Or if those we love who give meaning to our lives pass away, we may find less purpose.
And that’s why this research is so important – for primary care doctors and patients alike. Purpose and meaning can keep us going even under the most trying of circumstances. But if that inertia is taken away, it can mean worse health outcomes overall.