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According to science, people who have a higher purpose live about seven years longer than those who don’t. That remarkable statistic is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits that having a clearly defined purpose can bestow upon your physical and mental health. Eric Kim, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke about the power of purpose with Life Reimagined last year. Here, he brings us up to date on the latest findings about the meaning of life and the benefits of having a reason to get up in the morning.
What’s the latest thinking about purpose?
People have been linking higher purpose with better health outcomes, such as reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, cognitive impairment and increased longevity. In the last year, the field has been uncovering interesting mechanisms that might help explain this connection between purpose and health. For example, people with higher purpose, when faced with shocking events, don’t appear to fare better initially, but they bounce back more quickly. We’re still looking at why, but the ability to bounce back more quickly is one of the mechanisms that underlie the connection between higher purpose and health.
How much more quickly do people with purpose recover?
In one study, researchers used standardized methods of stressing people out. For example, people were given very hard math problems that they had to do quickly. Everyone’s cortisol was peaking, which is a reflector of stress, but just 15 minutes later, people with lower purpose had a higher level of cortisol, and people with higher purpose were almost returning to baseline levels.
What does this mean for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Hard to say, but there is related literature showing that after traumatic events, people don’t automatically go into PTSD; there are different and unique trajectories. Some people are able to remain who they were, some fall into PTSD, and some people actually go into something called post-traumatic growth, where they have growth experiences. If I had to make an educated guess, I would think that purpose is playing into this; for example, the people on that upper trajectory after a traumatic event may have had a higher purpose before experiencing the trauma, but I’m not aware of research on this idea yet. It’s an interesting question to pursue.
What’s new and compelling since you last talked with Life Reimagined?
Purpose is potentially having a direct effect on several biomarkers, indicators of risk for things like heart attack, which is quite interesting. For example, people with higher purpose have lower inflammation, and we’re seeing that even after controlling for health behaviors. It implies that somehow there could potentially be a direct brain/body connection. Last summer a direct structure was discovered that connects the brain and the immune system, which could help explain how the brain and body are really constantly interacting with each other in a bidirectional way. It’s kind of a revolutionary finding.
What have you learned in the past year that will help people live longer, happier lives?
There have been lots of scientific studies examining the efficacy of different purpose interventions. These studies are showing that purpose can be reliably enhanced. This research has really emerged more frequently in the last year or two. For example, there are cognitive behavioral therapies that aim to reduce depression anxiety, hostility; they’ve been modified to also enhance purpose and meaning in life. There’s also reminiscence therapy where people are guided through very specific steps in a group setting, and they share significant life events. This process is shown to increase purpose in life.
There are other ways of improving purpose in life, such as volunteering. These methods are not quick things that we can do; it takes a lot of time and effort, just like rigorous exercise and dieting when we are trying to lose 15 pounds—but most people find it extremely worthwhile to discover one’s purpose in life. This research is really great because people generally think we’re just victims of the winds of circumstance, but this research shows us that we can take control and do things systematically to discover our purpose.
How do you find your purpose when you are busy living your life?
I don’t have a data driven answer to this question, but I have seen how a lot of patients derive purpose from family in some way, whether it’s children, grandchildren or taking care of their parents as caregivers. Another route that I often see is volunteering. People have full-time jobs, but they redirect some of the skills that they’ve learned toward volunteer efforts, and they’re finding it enhances their purpose as well. Religion is definitely another route where people find a purpose; also when they congregate in their places of worship with people who have a common value structure, that can enhance purpose and recharge people. And for some people it’s their hobbies. Some people kind of have their sports team instead of a religion.
What’s the relationship between resilience and purpose?
With resilience, there has to be an event that pushes down on somebody and causes stress. That’s a prerequisite. Purpose doesn’t require that stressor component, although stressors probably help foster someone’s purpose. I think these two constructs are intertwined in interesting ways. An example is the research I was discussing before, where people with higher purpose are more resilient.
Also, people with higher purpose are better at pushing past barriers. When they’re trying to achieve a health goal there might be time or financial barriers, or there might be psychological barriers. For example, someone might not want to get a screening because their parents both had that particular condition, and they’re scared. Purpose helps people push past these barriers, and in that way purpose appears to enhance resilience as well.
Does the pursuit of purpose have a ripple effect with the surrounding world?
Volunteering has a ripple effect on the cause but also the community. This can enhance a sense of social cohesion, defined by a sense of trust and community. Purpose may lead to more neighborhood social cohesion, which enhances health in a variety of interesting ways. For example, people with higher neighborhood social cohesion are more likely to share information about where to get low-priced fruits and vegetables, or where to get flu shots for free. They also get to know each other, so if you haven’t seen a neighbor in a few days, you’ll go over to the house and check if everything is OK. People with higher neighborhood social cohesion are also more likely to advocate for bike lanes and transportation for people who are differently abled.
What are the surprising mental health benefits of purpose?
When people retire and don’t have another structured activity, some people can fall into loneliness and depression because they don’t have the social aspect that they had in their jobs, that built-in camaraderie. However, when people have a purpose they can connect themselves to different communities to help express their purpose and in doing so build social connections, which in turn helps prevent loneliness and depression.
Is seeking purpose just a fad?
I see purpose mentioned a lot more in the popular culture, even in silly ways like Justin Bieber’s album called Purpose. I see people discussing it a lot in the media and in everyday life.
I’ve been studying this topic for seven years. Starting about two years ago there was almost an explosion of interest. For example, more companies have been contacting me to learn more about purpose in life and different sectors of society are finding out how powerful purpose can be. In the area of education, purpose pushes children to persevere on difficult topics. In business, analyses show that companies with higher purpose are some of the best performing companies. This is just a sampling of the purpose research that is emerging, and there are so many more interesting avenues to pursue.
One driving force behind the surging interest in purpose in life is the positive psychology movement that started about 15 years ago. Although it wasn’t intended by the founders of the field, a lot of people veered into the hedonic side of happiness, like vacationing. That’s all good and great, but this other side of well-being has been underemphasized, and people are realizing they need a balance of these two to have a satisfying life.
Here’s another fascinating finding that happened in the past year or so. Researchers looked at people who were hedonically happy [pleasures from the senses, food, sex, winning the lottery] and another group that was more eudaimonically happy [connection with loved ones, purpose, meaning, community service, spirituality] and they were actually showing different gene expression profiles—essentially people who were more eudaimonically happy were healthier.
Bottom line, there are different ways of being happy, and it may even show up in your genes.