Having a clearly defined the purpose not only makes your life more meaningful, but can extend it as well. This is one of the newest and most exciting trends in health research. Eric Kim, a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies how aging, positive thinking and physical health are linked, shares his insights with Life Reimagined.
Recent research shows that having life purpose improves health. What are some of the most encouraging findings?
Research in psychology has almost exclusively focused on how negative factors lead to worse health. Now, we’re learning that positive psychological factors like optimism, satisfaction and purpose in life appear to have a unique positive impact on health—an impact above and beyond the absence of psychological distress. We also find that positive factors that are beyond an individual’s control—for example, the psychological functioning of your partner — can have an impact on health. Our research suggests that you would be healthier if your partner was more optimistic. Further, the level of cohesion in your neighborhood appears to impact your health and create a healthier lifestyle.
Are meaning and purpose the same?
For hundreds of years philosophers and theologians have been writing about purpose and meaning in life. It is only very recently that scientists have begun examining this topic. In general, meaning looks backward and helps us process and make sense of life events that have happened in the past. In contrast, purpose in life looks forward and helps motivate us into the future through aims, goals and directions.
Is purpose different than optimism? Do you need both?
Purpose is indeed different than optimism. Purpose is a self-organizing life aim that helps people stimulate and organize goals, which in turn helps manage behaviors. Optimism on the other hand is a generalized expectation that good things will happen. I don’t know of any studies that examined whether we need both purpose and optimism in order to have a positive impact on health, but my educated guess is that having both will lead to better health compared to having only one or the other.
What does your research reveal about the health benefits of having purpose?
I have had the good fortune of leading studies on purpose in life with a number of experts in different fields. In a nutshell, we found that higher purpose in life was longitudinally associated with a reduced risk of stroke, myocardial infarction and sleep disturbances. We also found that purpose in life was associated with an increased likelihood of obtaining several preventive screenings, including cholesterol tests, colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears, prostate exams and flu shots. Further, purpose in life was associated with fewer overall doctor visits and fewer overnight hospitalizations. In all of these studies, we found that these associations between purpose and health persisted in several statistical models that adjusted for plausible confounders.
How can we use what you learned to live longer and be happier?
Our research suggests that increasing purpose in life in is a very promising and innovative way of enhancing health.
Can having purpose make anybody healthier?
We are tackling the question of whether the health benefits of purpose cross all socioeconomic lines. The preliminary answer appears to be yes. This study is not yet published, but we have found the association between purpose and a healthy life persists across levels of wealth and education. We also plan to see if the health benefits of purpose persist across racial/ethnic lines.
See also: The Moment That Changes Your Life
Are there any projections on how much the health care industry could save if everyone lived more purposefully?
This is difficult for me to calculate, however here are some results from our study, conducted in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults over the age of 50. Compared to people with the lowest purpose, people with the highest purpose make 32% fewer doctor visits and spend 61% fewer overnights in the hospital. Further, compared to people with the lowest purpose, people with the highest purpose are 121% more likely to obtain flu shots, 228% more likely to obtain cholesterol tests, and 133% more likely to obtain colonoscopies. Women are 330% more likely to obtain a mammogram and 210% more likely to receive a pap smear, while men are 386% more likely to receive a prostate exam. Each hospital stay for an adult aged 65-84 costs approximately $12,300. Physician visits average $218 per visit.
See also: The Power of Volunteering
What’s the future of research on purpose and its relationship to wellness?
There is rapidly growing interest in this topic. Religion and philosophy have explored this topic for several centuries, but recently scientists, healthcare, and even the world of business is realizing how important purpose is. Also, there is an interesting concept called Blue Zones, places where people seem to live longer. People in these zones have some things in common including an active lifestyle, healthy diet and a sense of purpose. Okinawa Japan is a Blue Zone where they have a term called “ikigai,” which translates into “a reason for which you wake up in the morning.” This reason for living isn’t always large and grand in scope—although it is sometimes. For example, some people say their “ikigai” is tending a vegetable garden that helps feed his/her children and grandchildren. More research has to be done on these Blue Zones, but it’s a fascinating concept.