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Why a Sense of Purpose Is Essential for Health

What drives you each day? Do you strive to abide by societal expectations and fulfill the roles expected of you? Or do you have an internal driving force that aims you toward the road less traveled? There is no right or wrong answer. However, it is beneficial for you to have some sense of purpose in your life to serve as an underlying driving force.

This sense of purpose might be to heal the sick, become a loving parent or spouse, lead driven teams of people, fight against injustice, bring peace to others, or something else. There are many different ways you can answer the question “What is your purpose in life?” And you might change that answer depending on where you are in your life journey. There might even be some day-to-day variability.

The one thing you do not want to do is to be without one. This is because having a sense of purpose does more than guide you on your path; it also provides many health benefits.

A Healthy Brain
One reason to consider finding a sense of purpose if you feel a bit lost at the moment is that it might help to protect your brain health and cognitive function, especially as you age. In one study, having a higher sense of purpose led to a reduced risk of cerebral infarcts, which result after a stroke. The reduced risk included both silent infarcts, which typically occur without any overt symptoms, and clinical strokes. The connection remained even after adjusting for confounders, including BMI, smoking, and diabetes.

This association might be due to the fact that those with a stronger life purpose tend to also have healthier behaviors and lifestyles. However, this particular study found that even after adjusting for these healthier lifestyle factors, those with a stronger purpose still had a lower risk. This is affirmed through the findings of a prospective study that illustrated having a higher purpose in life led to a lower risk of stroke within a four-year follow-up period. This association remained after adjusting for several cofactors as well.

There is a correlation between purpose in life and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that might be attributed to positive effects on the actual neural connections in the brain. This disease affects more than 5 million people in the U.S., and this number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050. It is also the sixth leading cause of death in America, making it an important disease to find ways to prevent and/or treat it.

In one study, researchers found that having a purpose in life helped mitigate the negative effects of AD, even as the participants aged. The study used a structured interview to determine purpose in life, and the participants underwent an annual assessment of cognitive function. Upon death, they underwent a postmortem examination to check for three indexes of AD: amyloid, tangles, and global AD pathological changes. The researchers found those who had a higher purpose in life had enhanced cognitive function even with AD, despite no significant difference in the three indexes of the pathological changes. Even those with a high number of tangles experienced enhanced cognitive function thanks to having a higher life purpose.

Another study found that among the elderly living in senior-housing facilities, those who had a greater purpose in life had a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and AD.

Not convinced yet? Another study found a correlation between a higher purpose in life and a better memory, executive function, and overall cognitive ability in adults.

Enhanced Mental Health
Defining a person’s purpose in life is a common tool for mental health treatment thanks to its positive effect on several common mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. One study reviewed its efficacy in patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD). The researchers compared 38 people with generalized SAD and 38 healthy controls as they reported their efforts at achieving a specific purpose for a period of two weeks. The participants with SAD had lower life purpose scores than the control, and there were daily variables in their scores.

The researchers found no effect from the program in the control group, but those in the SAD group saw their well-being indicators increase on the days they had higher scores in the life purpose scores. This result demonstrates that feeling a strong sense of purpose, even for one day, has the potential to positively affect feelings of well-being.

Reduced Risk for Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease
There are many factors that might contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, including lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise. There might also be a psychological connection, since there is a high trend for comorbidity between diabetes and cardiovascular disease and several mental health disorders including depression and anxiety. Studies have found that having a sense of purpose might actually provide some protection against these disorders.

In one study, participants with diabetes who did not have a strong purpose in life had a much higher HbA1C—one of the main markers of blood sugar used to diagnose and monitor diabetes—compared with the control group that did not have diabetes. The comparison between the high HbA1C and lower HbA1C group was negligible. The three testing groups did not have any difference in the self-rated depression scores. In many diabetes management programs, the goal is to lower HbA1C scores. Based on this study, having a strong sense of purpose might be protective against diabetes, since it might help keep blood sugar levels down. There is not enough evidence to demonstrate that creating a sense of purpose could mitigate high blood sugar in those with diabetes; however, it might provide benefits with minimal downsides, so it is worth a try.

Another study looked at the relationship between purpose in life and the risk of myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks, including in those with cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that even after including and not including several covariants, such as ethnicity, education, smoking, exercise, BMI, optimism, and positive effect, the benefits remained. The protective effect was also stronger than what could be attributed to a lack of negative effects, such as depression or anxiety.

Combat Inflammation and Stress
Chronic inflammation and stress are associated with several chronic illnesses. When under chronic adversity, including from social and psychological factors, one response in the body is the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA) gene expressions in immune cells. These factors up-regulate the genes involved in inflammation while down-regulating those involved in defending against viruses and synthesizing antibodies. There is a link to an increase in these expressions and negative situations, including loneliness, PTSD, chronic care-giving stress, and low-socioeconomic status. Having a stronger sense of purpose might mitigate these gene expressions.

A study on male Japanese workers in an IT company in Tokyo looked at the effect of purpose of life, as well as eudemonic well-being (positive self-evaluations) and the judgment of general life satisfaction (hedonic well-being) on CTRA expression. In this study, there was a reduction of the CTRA expression in the immune system in those who had higher eudemonic well-being. More specific meanings of life, such as engaging in work or contributing to collective goals, also led to better regulation of immune systems, even after adjusting for potential confounders.

There are other potential ways that an enhanced purpose in life might reduce chronic inflammation. Another study found that women with a higher purpose in life had lower levels of IL-6 receptors. IL-6 is one of the pro-inflammatory cytokines, so having lower numbers of receptors could lead to a reduction in the inflammatory response.

Having a purpose in life also mitigates stress, thanks to providing a drive in life, increasing coping methods, and improving resilience. In one study, researchers found that having a purpose in life, including those that adhered to social norms, led to lower stress levels in an Indian population. Having this meaning helped the participants have better coping strategies, which mitigated the negative consequences of stress on the body. The researchers felt this could be partly because having a sense of purpose can help turn the stress into eustress, which improves the function of the body, unlike distress.

In a study on Chinese medical students, researchers found those who had better resilience for stress did not have the same negative psychological and physical response to the chronic stress associated with medical school. There was a positive correlation with resilience and life satisfaction. In fact, life satisfaction was the only factor that had a significant impact on the ability to mitigate the stress. One factor that can improve satisfaction in life is a stronger purpose.

Improve Your Longevity
Another reason to maintain your sense of purpose throughout your life is that it might increase your lifespan—and you will spend these extra years with a better quality of life. One reason for this improved longevity is that having a life purpose might be associated with having better regulation of your stress response, as discussed. A prospective study found a link between a lower allostatic load and a higher sense of purpose after a 10-year follow-up.

What is the allostatic load? It is basically the result of the stress response over time. You can think of it as a measurement of the wear and tear your body has undergone due to chronic and acute stress. There are several markers of the neuroendocrine system that assess the level of stress, including lipids, inflammation, and lipids. In this study, the allostatic markers after 10 years were lower in those who had a higher purpose in their lives, even after controlling for certain potential confounding variables such as gender, ethnicity, and education. It even remained after looking at certain psychological factors such as positive and negative effects. Because a higher allostatic load correlates to a higher risk of mortality, reducing your allostatic load through having a strong sense of purpose could correlate with increased longevity.

Additionally, a meta-analysis found that having a higher purpose in life correlated to a significant reduction in all-cause mortality. In addition to fewer deaths, there was also a reduction in cardiovascular risk. These findings were based on 10 included studies in the review, which had more than 136,000 participants. In eight of the studies, these results remained significant even after several covariates were accounted for, including age and gender and traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It also remained true when comparing the studies that took place in Japan and those in the U.S.

The Reason for the Benefits
There are a few hypotheses as to the benefits of a purpose of life. One is that it helps reduce certain biomarkers, like those involved in inflammation and allostatic load. Another is that it might be associated with a healthier lifestyle. For example, there is an association between higher physical activity level and a strong sense of purpose. It also might help to mitigate stress or emotional turmoil, both of which also have an impact on health. People with a sense of purpose are also more likely to take advantage of preventative health services.

All of these hypotheses are valid; however, many of the studies discussed also adjusted for these and still found significant benefits from a sense of purpose. Therefore, there must still be something about this particular component of life that makes a different. We might not yet know the exact underlying mechanisms, but we can still recognize the benefit of finding a sense of purpose.

So, what does this mean for you? Try to find a way to incorporate purpose into your life. It might be something sizeable, such as volunteering or starting a family or landing that job you want. However, simply having an underlying purpose to your day can also provide some health benefits. Whether you make small or large changes, find some way to incorporate a sense of purpose in everything you do and reap the benefits for your health.

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2 Comments

  1. Eric Dunn

    I enjoyed your piece on a Sense of Purpose. It is at thecore of all health and healing!

    Reply
  2. K. Pebley

    How do you attain a PURPOSE! What is your definition of Potpose as it relates to a direction for a life style?

    Reply

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