Got Purpose? Your Health Might Depend on It

In a symposium that felt much like a philosophy lecture, attendees were treated to a spirited discussion of the gap (or perceived gap) between humanistic and positive psychology. The room was filled beyond capacity- the strongest turnout of any of the symposiums I attended throughout the convention. Why? Psychology can ask some pretty big questions. Big questions like “what does it mean to be human?” and “what is the purpose in life?” are some of the questions that draw people to psychology in the first place.

While many psychologists relegate such big questions to philosophical debates, others are trying to get at them scientifically. One such researcher is Dr. Carol Ryff, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Ryff has made a career out of developing and testing core constructs that define well-being. One of these constructs she calls “purpose in life.” How does one define purpose in life? Ryff defined it as “finding meaning and direction in your life.” In a several studies, she has documented that purpose in life, as a measure, has impressive predictive utility for health. First, purpose in life is not static (i.e., it changes over time). In a recent study, she and her colleagues found the purpose in life plummets, on average, as we get older. In addition, low levels of purpose in life are associated with several biomarkers indicative of early disease risk and premature mortality. For example, she has linked low purpose in life to markers of systemic inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease, among other chronic conditions.

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Does one’s purpose in life effect one’s biology directly? People who report more purpose in their lives appear to take better care of themselves. For example, Ryff and colleagues used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study of older adults, and found that those reporting greater purpose in life were more likely engage in preventive care (e.g., get their cholesterol checked, get cancer screenings).

Is it possible to increase someone’s purpose in life? On the face of it, sure. I can certainly think of friends and loved ones who have found greater purpose in response to life experiences, such as surviving a health scare or having a baby. What about an intervention that could be deployed to lots of people? That’s something Ryff and her colleagues are thinking about. While she didn’t get into details, she did note a recent study, known as the Lighten Up study, that seeks to improve well-being among older adults. Just another example of how psychologists are tackling questions at the core of human experience.

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