Spurred by a recent article published in Psychological Science by my colleague Patrick Hill of Carleton University, much attention is being paid towards the health benefits of possessing a sense of purpose in life1. Analyzing 14 years of data from over 6,000 participants in the nationwide Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), Dr. Hill discovered that a greater sense of purpose in life was a consistent predictor of lower mortality risk across the lifespan.
As a lofty and existentially-rooted construct, it is perhaps surprising that purpose in life should impose such a significant effect on our physiology. Yet, purpose has been shown to play a significant role in numerous domains of physical health, from the speed at which our tendons and muscle fibers recover from surgery, to the development of amyloid plaques in our brains, and even our cardiovascular health. In the last decade, an entire edifice has accumulated, resonating with one uniform message: living purposefully is beneficial to our health.
With such consistent evidence pointing towards the positive effect of purpose on longevity, it is somewhat surprising that very little inquiry has ventured to ask… Why? What is the mechanism through which purpose conspires to affect our health?
To this, I propose an explanation:
Purpose maintains both psychological and physical homeostasis by recentering one's conscious attention towards a more prospective focus, causing everyday stressors to become less influential in the manufacturing of health and well-being.
In essence, I suggest that individuals who are benefitted with a purposeful existence are less likely to be affected by the myriad stressors found in everyday life. To have a purpose in life implies that one is working towards large and overarching goals for the future. It is precisely this prospective focus, I hypothesize, that causes present-day stressors to be perceived, and subsequently internalized, more innocuously in the grand scheme of things. Our purpose in life forms around our minds like a protective shield of rubber, bouncing off any stressors that may attempt to pervade our thoughts and negatively affect our health.
Evidence for this hypothesis stems from recent work led by Cornell University researcher Anthony Burrow published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here, Dr. Burrow had participants ride a train through a diverse area of Chicago. Plentiful research shows that when individuals are surrounded by people of different racial and ethnic groups, their levels of stress increase2. Thus, as expected, individuals who rode trains accompanied by higher proportions of ethnic others reported higher levels of stress. Yet, individuals who were instructed to write about their sense of purpose in life for 10 minutes prior to boarding the train were impervious to the stressors of the ethnically diverse train. Similarly, in an additional study by Dr. Burrow and myself, we found that purpose attenuated the perceived stress associated with choosing to live in an ethnically heterogeneous city.
Further evidence for the ability of purpose to buffer individuals from stressors exists in studies showing that patients with a sense of purpose experience less negative moods when recovering from knee surgery and also that purpose is a protective factor in myocardial infarctions (which can be an indicator of stress).
Collectively, it appears that the mechanism through which purpose leads to longer lives could exist in its ability to buffer individuals from stress. Should this be the case, many interesting questions arise. For example, if purpose leaves us less susceptible to the stressors of negative life events, does the same follow suit for positive events? Are purposeful indviduals living with such a prospective focus that they are more inured to both the positive and negative stimuli of present-day reality? Furthermore, how can we differentiate purpose from other established stress-attenuating concepts like self-affirmation theory? Additional examination is still needed in order to illuminate the beneficial role that purpose plays in our lives. What is important is that we keep venturing to ask…Why?
2. For review, see article by Robert Putnam titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture.”