This finding comes from an article in the 28 January 2017 issue of the New Scientist by Teal Burrell titled “A meaning to life: How a sense of purpose can keep you healthy.” Ikigai is the Japanese word for having a purpose in life. Ikigai also helps prevent heart attack(27%) and stroke (22%), enables people to sleep better, have better sex and live longer, and cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than half according to a study by Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
Burrell quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Burrell gives the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived four Nazi concentration camps credit for studying of how purpose influences our health. We encountered Viktor before in a healthy memory blog post titled “Another Quote Worth Pondering.” That quote was “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”
The critical reader might well ask, how do we know about the benefits of having a purpose in life? A more parsimonious explanation might be that purposeful people may exercise more or eat better. However, over the past ten years the findings about the health benefits have been remarkably consistent revealing that alcoholics whose sense of purpose increased during treatment were less likely to resume heavy drinking six months later. People with higher purpose were less likely to develop sleep disturbances with age, and that women with more purpose rated their sex lives as more enjoyable. Victor Stecher, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan found that these findings persist “even after statistically controlling for age, race, gender, education, income health status and health behaviors. Stecher is the author of the book, “Life on Purpose.”
A study of 7000 middle-aged people in the US found that even small increases in sense of purpose were associated with big drops in the chances of dying during a period of 14 years. An analysis of more than 9000 English people over 50 years old found that after adjusting for things like education, depression, smoking, and exercise—those in the highest quartile of purpose had a 30% lower risk of death over nearly a decade compared with those in the lowest quartile.
Some might argue that this sense of purpose is confounded with wealth. However, a 2007 Gallup poll of 141,000 people in 132 countries found that even though people from wealthier countries rate themselves higher on measure of happiness, people from poorer countries tend to view their lives as more meaningful. Shierhio Oishi of the University of Virginia suspects this is in part because people in developing countries have more concrete things to focus on. He says, “Their goals are clearer perhaps: to survive and believe. In rich countries, there are so many potential choices that it could be hard to see clearly.”
Another explanation could be in terms of religious faith. Oishu’s study find that nations with the highest ratings of meaningful life were also the most religious. And religious people do tend to report having more purpose. However, efforts to disentangle the two have revealed differences. For example, religiosity does not predict a lower risk of heart attack or stroke.
Steven Cole of the University of California at Los Angeles says , “If people are living longer, there’s got to be some biology underpinning it.” Cole has spent years studying how negative experiences such as loneliness and stress can increase the expression of genes promoting inflammation, which can cause cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, or cancer.
Cole has examined the influence of well-being. He has focused on two types of well-being: hedonic, from pleasure and rewards, and eudaemonic, for having a purpose beyond self-gratification. Participants were measured by having them note down their well-being over the previous week, how often they felt happy (hedonic), or that their life had a sense of direction (eudaemonic). Scoring highly on one often meant scoring highly on the other and both correlated with lower levels of depression, but they had opposite effects on gene expression. People with higher measures of hedonic well-being had higher expression of inflammatory genes and lower expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies. It was just the opposite for people scoring highest on eudaemonia who had lower expression of inflammatory genes, and higher expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies. Cole suspects the eudaemonia, with its focus on purpose, decreases the nervous systems reaction to sudden danger that increases heart rate and breathing and surges of adrenaline. Over-activation of this stress-response system causes harmful inflammation. Cole says there be something saying “be less frightened, or less worried, anxious or uncertain.”
An alternative, but not mutually exclusive theory for how purpose could affect biology is by preserving the telomeres, which are the caps on the chromosomes that protect DNA from damage, but that shorten with age and stress. Research has also indicated that stress reduction through meditation has found that it could defend telomeres. Close analysis showed the the benefit was down to a change in sense of purpose, not the meditation directly: the greater a person’s purpose became, the more of the protein telomerase they had to protect their telomeres.
Of course, a key question is how can people boost heir sense of purpose if it is lacking? The article suggests several different strategies. Meditation can have an effect. Eudaemonic well-being is strengthened by carrying out random acts of kindness. Cole has found that having a purpose that benefits others may be particularly helpful;.
Stretcher recommends setting a different purpose for each o four domains in life—family, work, community and personal—and acknowledging that you focus will shift among them over time, and the goals themselves can shift too.
Dolores Gallagher-Thompson has found that cognitive behavioral therapy can promote meaningfulness. She encourages patients to consider their legacy and how they might prove a good example for children and grandchildren.
© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.