People who feel a sense of purpose in their life are more likely to live long, healthy lives, according to new research.
The study, based on a large cohort of 6,985 people, was led by University of Michigan School of Public Health epidemiologist Dr Leigh Pearce, who specializes in cancer survival, and how to improve quality of life.
After a conversation with a colleague who researches life purpose, Dr Pearce decided to pivot her work to dig into this question.
She wanted to confirm if meaningfulness lowers mortality risk – an idea which has gained steam and solid evidence in recent years – would hold true in such a large group.
Her findings, which compile to form a remarkably uniform graph reflecting just that, suggested to Dr Pearce that it is worth trying to develop tools to capture a sense of meaning in the face of bleak diagnoses – whether it’s apps or therapy techniques.
Humans have been soul-searching, existential beings at least since we were painting on cave walls and creating the structures of worship – some hundreds of thousands of years ago.
It’s not exactly clear why we developed a need for meaning, when other species didn’t, but it is clear that our pursuit of meaning is as deeply-rooted a human instinct as hunting is for wolves.
What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly clear that those who do not feel they have a purpose, beyond surviving day to day, are more likely to die early.
Dr Pearce’s study, published today in the journal JAMA Network Open, adds to that.
Her team looked at data from a seven-item questionnaire filled out by around 8,000 over-50s in 2006.
Many of their answers touched on ‘life purpose’ and ‘life satisfaction’, and they were categorized on a scale of 0-6.
Life purpose, in this study, was defined as ‘a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals, promotes healthy behaviors, and gives meaning to life.’
They then compared their answers to their physical health and death data years later, and found, unequivocally, that of the 6,000 adults who filled out the ‘life purpose’ questions, there was a strong correlation between those who felt a sense of purpose and living longer.
People with a sense of purpose, they found, are more likely to go to the doctor, create a community, and engage in healthier habits.
They are also more likely to have better outcomes after a stroke.
Trying to incorporate ‘meaning’ into healthcare is already tried, tested and successful in some parts of the world, most notably Japan, where the philosophy of ikigai – ‘something to live for, the joy and goal of living’ – is part of the culture from birth to death.
In the US, there has been resistance in the decades since Freud, as psychologists have striven to be recognized as ‘legitimate’ scientists, rather than dreamers.
But, with all this robust and growing evidence, it is only logical that we try to apply the findings in a practical sense, particularly to help people whose sense of meaning and mortality is challenged by a diagnosis.
There are a couple of challenges to taking this forward.
First, this study only included data on people over 50. The effects might be different in younger populations.
Second, and more importantly, ‘purpose’ is different for everyone, particularly when our entire sense of meaning and purpose is challenged.
In some, it is family; in some it is a legacy of written works, art, or a foundation.
Religion has been a boon for humans, allowing us to feel relaxed in the face of death, knowing that there’s something to look forward to, and that we are more than our degrading bodies. Indeed, research repeatedly shows that religious people feel more peaceful, happy, and less nervous – all things related to good health.
But, for some, nature delivers that.
This week, for example, the New York Times told the story of Isabella de la Houssaye, a 55-year-old mother-of-five with stage 4 lung cancer who is striving to make extraordinary trips with each of her kids. She ran an Ironman triathlon with one son, and she climbed the Andes with her daughter.
‘It is very individualized,’ Dr Pearce told DailyMail.com.
‘But what’s interesting is, I think about whether there is an overall approach to helping people find is what’s most important to them. Helping someone better understand what makes them tick, what their purpose is, their meaning.
‘And because it can be individualized, that’s where the value is. There’s no one-size-fits-all. But that means you can develop it in your own way.’
Helping someone else capture their own sense of meaning is difficult, partly because feeling meaning is distinct from feeling happy, as this 2012 study from Florida State University found.
We are happy receiving gifts, having less on our plates, and being excited and fulfilled in the here-and-now. But focusing on the present alone, and being less productive, hampers our sense of meaning.
We feel meaning when we think about the past and the future – things that, in the short term, can make us feel nervous – and when we are giving, working, and putting our ultimate goals ahead of our comfort.
There are attempts to find and strike that balance, though, and Dr Pearce is excited about the potential.
Mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial in breast cancer patients, she points out, and there are new efforts to develop apps, such as Purposeful, a ‘life coach’ on your phone.
Her next study, currently underway, is exploring the use of life coach apps for women with ovarian cancer diagnoses, looking at how effective it is in different stages of disease, remission, or recurrence.
Next, she hopes to look at how this could work for caregivers, too, who have high rates of burn-out and poor health.
‘It’s a departure from the work that I’ve done but I think that it may have benefit, and the evidence is very robust.’