Sense of Purpose and Health

sense of purpose and healthMight your sense of purpose and motivation in life decrease your visits to the hospital? – a blog post by Eric Baron

Many of us share a consistent notion of what it is to be healthy. We might think of living a longer life, spending less of that time holed up at home and surrounded by tissues, in bed and drinking tea, and more of it outside in pleasant sunshine, surrounded by friends.

And in our later years, making fewer visits to hospitals and waiting rooms. Understandably, plenty of people have a desire to “age gracefully,” comfortable and free of illness.

But achieving that good health, or simply better health, and how to make it to benchmarks of age like octogenarian—or finally receive that piece of mail from the President, saying something like, “Congratulations! You made it to the big one-zero-zero—this is where people start to disagree.

When it comes to matters of optimal minutes of exercise per day, diet styles and basic nutrition, or even the best ways of fending off a cold, people can get really rowdy.

But, such heightened passions and being motivated in and of itself could actually be a good thing for your health.

Apparently, those who have greater purposes in life and higher motivations are healthier people, mentally and physically. Psychologists and public health researchers found better health outcomes for participants across multiple studies, linking proactive health tendencies and use of preventive care with a high sense of purpose in life.

Results came from interdisciplinary and departmental studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the Institute on Aging, and the Health and Retirement Study, a panel study of Americans over the age of 50.

Though obviously unique to each person, life purpose, here, can be outwardly described in several ways: how much intrinsic meaning an individual ascribes to his or her life; a sense of direction; goals that are worth living for; or just feeling fulfilled.

Now, longitudinal studies are showing reduced morbidity tied to having purpose in life—as in reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, reduced stroke or heart attack risk, lower levels of inflammation—and intervention studies, designed to improve individuals’ outlooks on life, may also link to improved health.

A study from the Terman Study of the Gifted linked greater purpose with increased exercise and relaxation, in addition to frequent check-ups and accident prevention; another study found associations between higher purpose and screenings or self-exams for breast cancer.

Researchers hypothesize that individuals with greater purpose are motivated to stay healthy, thus more likely to pursue proactive and preventative care.

Instances of proactive care were cholesterol tests, colonoscopies, mammograms/X-rays, pap smears, and prostate examinations. In addition to preventative care, psychiatric intervention and techniques—such as cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and emotional disclosure—showed enhancements to psychological wellness.

Individuals who had relatively higher purposes in life also spent less time in the hospital. Researchers hypothesized that this was due to preventative care.

Their study used a sample of 7,168 individuals. Participants were from a nationally representative panel of adults over age 50, and tracked for six years. With subsequent unit increases (on a six-point scale), participants experienced a 17 percent decrease in hospital visits.

The results of these studies come at a time when preventative care is not only more important, but more accessible than ever, due to the Affordable Care Act.

A convergence of three major issues has been identified: 1) a rapidly aging U.S. population; 2) the rising costs of medical care for aging adults, especially those facing chronic illness and end-of-life issues; and 3) despite spending more on healthcare than adults in any other country, U.S. adults tend to have poorer health and lower life expectancies than those in any other developed countries.

The idea that sense of purpose in life could be a factor in health and overall well being is not new.

Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and survivor of the Holocaust, hypothesized that people with a higher sense of purpose are able to live longer; this is because their will to live is greater.

With this knowledge and awareness, how can one actually raise his or her sense of purpose or motivations in life?

One method of enhancing well being is focusing on what’s working or what’s right, rather than trying to pick out problems and that which needs to be “fixed” in your own life. It can be tough to do, but this mode of therapy and introspection has even increased quality of life and survival rates of cancer patients and those undergoing chemotherapy.

Another tactic is staying involved. In either group or individual format, retirees have found volunteer programs that help them to transition into older adult life, to maintain a sense of meaning and remain socially engaged.

Actively setting goals (and the steps to reach them!) in alignment with personal values, or raising awareness through mindfulness and conscious gratitude for what you do have—both of these can also increase sense of direction and value tied to life.

The key is, these kinds of activities and mindsets can be adopted at any age, in almost any situation.

Based on his experience and observations in Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

It’s true. And though it is difficult, it’s well worth your time and focus to sit down with a pen and paper, or maybe chat with a close friend or therapy professional, and figure out your own personal ‘why’.


 Eric S. Kim. Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Victor J. Strecher. Department of Health Behavior & Health Education, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Carol D. Ryff. Department of Psychology and Institute on Aging, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53705

Holahan CK, Suzuki R (2006) Motivational factors in health promoting behavior in later aging. Act Adaptation Aging 30(1):47–60.

Wells JNB, Bush HA, Marshall D (2002) Purpose-in-life and breast health behavior in Hispanic and Anglo women. J Holist Nurs 20(3):232–249.