Research on ikigai, or purpose in life, is usually measured with statements such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them. Respondents then assess these statements using scales that range from one to seven. Bear in mind that these are just examples, the assessment form includes many more such statements. The responses to all these statements are combined to form an overall index of purpose. Although this might appear to be a simple form of evaluation, it delivers reliable and validated results.
Studies using these measures have demonstrated that people reporting a strong purpose in life live longer lives, on average, that those with a weak purpose. A recent study that followed over seven thousand middle-aged America adults for fourteen years found that even a one-point increase on a seven-point scale of purpose resulted in an over 12% reduced risk of dying. The person’s age or whether they’ retired did not matter. What is even more impotent is that general measures of happiness or sadness did not influence the risk of death, not did they affect the impact of purpose in life.
Dr. Strecher spends his days at work studying facts that make us healthy or unhealthy. Together, tobacco use, a poor diet, inactivity, stress, and other lifestyle factors contribute to about half of disease and early death. This is not news. There are many articles written on these issues, yet you rarely read about ikigai, or having a meaningful purpose in life, but current evidence indicates that it contributes at least as much to disease and death as do these other factors.
In a study of over 1,500 adults with heart disease followed for two years, every one-point increase a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 27% lower risk of suffering a heart attack. In a study of over 6,000 adults follows for four years, every one-point increase on a six-pint scale resulted in a 22% reduced risk of stroke.
Great pains are taken in this research to avoid mistaking correlation for causation. Other factors that might actually be causing changes in the outcomes of interest are statistically controlled.
Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed over nine hundred seniors for seven years, looking for the incidence of Alzheimer’s. Over that period, seniors with a low purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with a high purpose in life. In a different study the same research team found a slower progression of the disease among those who had developed Allzheimer’s and had a high purpose in life.
People with ikigai, or a strong purpose in life, on average, do better psychologically and socially than those without. They sleep better, have better sex, and are less likely to become depressed and are more relaxed. Diabetics with ikigai are more likely to have their blood glucose under control. People who have received drug and alcohol rehab are half as likely to relapse six month later if they started treatment with a strong purpose. There are physiological factors underlying these results. Ikigai is associated with an increase in natural killer cells that attack viruses and cancerous cells. Ikigai is also associated with reduction in inflammatory cell production and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol.)
These outcomes also translate into reductions in health-care costs. After statistically controlling for initial demographics, health behaviors, and health status, every point improved on a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 17% reduction in nights spent in the hospital. Someone on a six-point scale, with a purpose of five would have an average of 36% fewer hospital nights per year than a person who had a purpose of two. Dr. Strecher knows of no other lifestyle behavior that produces this effect on health care.
The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, discovered the role of telomeres. Telomeres are located at the end of our chromosomes and act a bit like the plastic caps that keep shoelaces from fraying. When our telomeres shorten, our chromosomes are more susceptible to damage and we’re more likely to get sick.
Stress damages chromosomes. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, so Blackburn and her colleagues created an experiment that randomly enrolled some subjects in a three-month meditation program, and others to a waiting list for the program. The research question was whether meditation would reduce stress, which might, in turn, increase an enzyme, telomerase, that a fuels telomeres.
Compared to the control group, the meditators did have more telomerase. However, they also found that the meditators were developing a stronger purpose in their lives, and it was this purpose in life, and not the meditation, that was associated with the higher levels of telomerase.