People with a stronger sense of purpose in life are more likely to live healthily — both mentally and physically.
According to research, the reason may be that purpose in life banishes the natural conflict people experience when trying to make healthy choices.
Purpose in life can come from work, family, a sense of self or other broad aim or goal being pursued.
Feeling purposeful contributes to the feeling that life is meaningful:
- People who feel life is meaningful are more likely to be in both good psychological and good physical health.
- People who feel life isn’t meaningful are more likely to be depressed, to require therapy and even feel suicidal.
Dr Yoona Kang, the study’s first author, said:
“Purpose in life has been robustly associated with health in previous studies, but the mechanism through which life purpose may promote healthy living has been unclear.”
For the study, 220 people with sedentary lifestyles answered a survey that asked them how much they agreed with statements like:
- “I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life”
- “I don’t have a good sense of what it is I’m trying to accomplish in life.”
They were then shown messages urging them to get more exercise.
While reading these messages, their brains were scanned.
The results showed that people who had more purpose in life had less activity in brain regions related to processing conflicts.
In other words, a generalised purpose in life made people argue with the statement less.
Sure enough, they were also more likely to accept that doing a little more exercise was a good idea.
Dr Emily Falk, study co-author, said:
“We conduct studies both to understand how different kinds of health messaging can help transform people’s behaviors and why some people might be more susceptible than others.
This study does a nice job starting to unpack reasons why people who have a higher sense of purpose in life might be more able to take advantage of this messaging when they encounter it.”
The study was published in the journal Health Psychology (Kang et al., 2019).