How a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Your Health
A more meaningful life is likely to be healthier as well. Here’s why.
Posted July 14, 2017
Why bother getting out of bed in the morning? Having a good answer to that question might help you stay healthier and even live longer. When you feel as if your life has meaning, research shows that you may be less likely to develop sleep problems, have a heart attack, or die prematurely.
A paper published online this month in the Review of General Psychology helps clarify how meaning and health may be connected. Reduced stress, improved coping, and healthier lifestyle choices all may play a role, says the paper’s lead author, psychologist Stephanie Hooker, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the University of Minnesota.
What do you mean, “meaningful”?
Each person defines a meaningful life for himself or herself. However, Hooker says, “it’s basically the idea that your life makes sense, you’re here for a reason, and you’re significant in the world.”
Just leading a life that matters probably isn’t enough to reap the health rewards, however. For that, Hooker says, you likely need to remind yourself regularly about what gives your life purpose.
It’s easy to lose sight of this awareness. “For example, most physicians go into medicine because they want to help people be healthier,” says Hooker. “But then they get caught up in, ‘I’ve got to see 20 patients today, and I’ve got to write these notes, and there’s all the politics going on in the department.’ Everything else distracts them from why they went into medicine in the first place.”
Anyone can be distracted by daily pressures and hassles. When that happens, if you can step back and take a few moments to reflect on what makes it all worthwhile, both your health and your happiness are likely to benefit.
Three ways meaning may affect health
Research points to at least three ways in which your awareness of a sense of purpose may promote physical health.
Being cognizant of what matters most may help you keep other frustrations and annoyances in perspective, Hooker says. You’re still dealing with the same traffic jam, looming deadline, or demanding boss. But you aren’t blowing the situation out of proportion, and that results in less stress.
Conversely, feeling that your life is pointless may ratchet up your stress level. In experiments by researchers at Florida State University, people were randomly assigned to paraphrase either statements related to meaninglessness (for example, “Human life seems like a useless, meaningless treadmill”) or unrelated statements. Those in the first group experienced greater stress afterward.
Preliminary evidence suggests that people who feel as if their lives are meaningful may choose more effective coping strategies when faced with a problem or challenge, Hooker says. For example, in a study of arthritis patients who were undergoing knee replacement, a strong sense of purpose before surgery was associated with more active coping and better physical health after surgery.
“People who have a greater sense of meaning may be more likely to take care of themselves because they feel as if their lives matter more,” says Hooker. “They’ve got this ultimate purpose that they’re trying to achieve, and health is the foundation for being able to do that.”
Hooker’s own past research, conducted while previously at the University of Colorado Denver, looked at the link between meaning and physical activity. One study showed that a stronger sense of purpose was associated with moving more, as measured by movement monitors worn by volunteers for three straight days.
Other research teams have found similar links to healthy behavior. For example, in a study of older adults, a higher sense of purpose was associated with greater use of preventive health services, such as getting a cholesterol test, mammogram, or prostate exam. Not incidentally, it was also related to spending less time in the hospital.
The upshot of all these studies: Your life counts for something—and reminding yourself about why that’s true may be good for your health.
Hooker, S. A., & Masters, K. S. (2016). Purpose in life is associated with physical activity measured by accelerometer. Journal of Health Psychology, 21, 962-971. doi.org/10.1177/1359105314542822
Hooker, S. A., Masters, K. S., & Park, C. L. (2017, July 6). A meaningful life is a healthy life: a conceptual model linking meaning and meaning salience to health. Review of General Psychology. Advance online publication. dx.doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000115