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Mind & Mood
Will a purpose-driven life help you live longer?
- By Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
Do you get joy out of volunteering, helping out with your grandkids, or learning new skills in that class you've been taking?
If you said yes, it could help you live longer. As it turns out, being inspired by things in your life doesn't just help your emotional well-being — it may keep you healthier.
A 2019 JAMA Network Open study found that among a group of nearly 7,000 adults over age 50, those who scored highest on a scale that measured "life purpose" were less likely to die during the four-year study period. They were also less likely to die during the same period from heart, circulatory, or blood conditions, compared with those who scored lower.
"There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of purpose in life is associated with reduced risk of early death," says Eric S. Kim, PhD, a research scientist in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "However, this study showed for the first time that sense of purpose in life is associated with specific causes of death, and that's an interesting advancement of knowledge."
Defining a purposeful life
So, what exactly is life purpose? Life purpose is defined differently by different people. But in general it indicates that you have an aim in life and goals. This purpose, the study authors said, helps make it more likely that you will engage in behaviors that are good for your health. Some studies have simply asked people what gives them a sense of purpose in life, says Kim. People listed such factors as
- family and relationships
- helping others
- learning new skills
- taking part in leisure activities or hobbies.
"I define it as the extent to which people experience their lives as being directed and motivated by valued life goals," says Kim.
In this study, having more life purpose was associated with a lower rate of death during the study period overall, from cardiovascular disease and blood conditions, and also from digestive conditions.
However, stronger life purpose didn't appear to insulate study participants from all health conditions. Researchers did not find an effect on death rates from cancer, tumors, or conditions that affected the respiratory tract. It's also important to note that the study didn't prove that having a life purpose resulted in the lower death rates seen in the study.
"This was a well-done observational study. But there are limitations from studies with this kind of design, as they can't pinpoint causality," says Kim.
How does life purpose keep you healthy?
There are a few theoretical reasons why having a life purpose might help improve your health. "We're currently working on a review article about this topic and we found literature suggesting that purpose in life works through three main pathways," says Kim.
These include the following:
It makes you more likely to protect your health. For example, you might eat healthier, sleep better, exercise more, or increase your use of preventive health services.
It could reduce stress. "There's some evidence from lab studies and studies that track people over time that suggests that people with a higher sense of purpose in life are less perturbed by various stressors, and also recover more quickly when they are more stressed out," says Kim.
It could reduce inflammation. Researchers have linked inflammation in the body to cardiovascular disease and other health conditions. Stress is known to prompt inflammation in the body, so reducing stress might help to reduce inflammation.
Ultimately, activities that provide life purpose may be prompted by an overarching outlook in which life itself is greatly valued, says Kim. "One caveat is that there are important studies that show no association between a sense of purpose in life and some of these factors, so this is still an active field of research."
Lacking purpose? Strategies to help
If you feel like you are lacking purpose, seeking out new opportunities may help. Look for activities and roles that will provide a compelling reason to get up every morning. Some research has found that volunteering is a valuable option for many people.
But if you're feeling stuck, don't be afraid to reach out for help.
"There's some evidence to suggest that specialized cognitive behavioral therapy can improve a sense of purpose in life, as well as meaning in life, which is a conceptually close cousin," says Kim.
About the Author
Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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