Unlocking a Healthy Lifestyle: Purpose in Life as a Key
(Image credit: Vicky Tran)
Imagine something that makes you excited to get out of bed and start your day. It guides your everyday behaviors and gives your life a sense of meaning and security. This “something” is called purpose. When someone has a purpose, they have life-long goals that are meaningful to them and are motivated to engage in activities that align with these goals. Purpose can be different for each person. For example, purpose can come from one’s religion, job, personal achievements, leisure activities, or relationships. Regardless of the source, researchers are beginning to take notice of purpose and how it not only influences our everyday decisions but the decisions when it comes to our health as well.
When people act in accordance with their purpose, they tend to do well within their day-to-day lives. They report eating healthier (1), exercising (2), and taking advantage of preventative health care services (3). When it’s time for a good night’s rest, those with purpose tend to report fewer sleep disturbances and being more relaxed (4). Beyond the way purpose influences our day-to-day activities, those with a purposeful life tend to have lower risks for strokes (5), Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases (6). They also tend to live longer! (7)
Considering that purpose is associated with positive health outcomes, researchers are now testing hypotheses for why this relationship exists (e.g., mechanisms). Purpose in life is likely to lead to positive health behaviors because maintaining a healthy lifestyle is likely to be an important component to carrying out one’s purpose. Thus, one with purpose develops a positive orientation towards their health (8) and becomes invested in their health (9). Since one’s health becomes a priority, the individual experiences less conflict (10) when it comes to choosing between engaging in a healthy behavior or a conflicting unhealthy behavior.
Purpose may also operate by making barriers to achieving one’s goals appear less daunting. A recent paper by Burrow, Patrick, and Sumner (2018) (11) demonstrated that when asked to estimate the steepness of a hill and the amount of effort needed to ascend, individuals who scored higher on a measure of purpose had a smaller relationship between overestimation of steepness and amount of effort needed to climb. Burrow et al. also experimentally manipulated the salience of one’s purpose by having some participants write about their purpose while others wrote about the last movie they saw. Those who wrote about purpose also demonstrated a decoupling between overestimation of the slope and effort. These results suggest that if you want to motivate yourself to get healthier, don’t just consider the immediate benefits of a healthy lifestyle, but also think about how your health contributes toward achieving your overall purpose. In couching smaller health goals in the context of your larger purpose, you may just discover that those health challenges that you once saw as impossibly steep mountains may begin to appear more manageable.
Apart from the motivational elements of purpose, the skills one uses when living their purpose can also contribute to a healthy lifestyle. When an individual has a strong sense of purpose, they use their skills and talents to engage in easy or hard activities that align with their purpose. For the difficult activities, the individual is building self-efficacy (e.g., one’s belief that they can successfully tackle a challenge by using their skills and talent) while engaging in these activities. For example, let’s say someone’s purpose is to be a school teacher. This purpose helps them organize their life around goals associated with achieving their purpose. So along with planning for their next week of lessons, they will also feel empowered to tackle other challenges, like planning their week’s activities in a way that allows them to get enough sleep and exercise.
Currently, the majority of the research on purpose in life and health is correlational so we cannot be sure whether having purpose leads to a healthier lifestyle or if it is the other way around. The good news is that here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we are currently exploring whether there’s a causal relationship between purpose in life and health behaviors. We will do so by first understanding how to increase purpose in life. Research has shown that feeling like you belong (12), being in a positive mood (13), engaging in prosocial behavior (14), and having a cohesive narrative about one’s life (15) can increase one’s purpose in life. What all of these variables have in common is the feeling of self-transcendence (e.g., contributing or being apart of something larger than the self). As humans, we all have a biological need of wanting social relationships. One way of feeling belonged to a group is to engage in prosocial behaviors (e.g., donating or giving lunch to the homeless). When someone engages in these activities, they are putting their needs to the side and are influencing others lives in a positive manner. In effect, this may put the individual in a good mood because they know that they are changing someone’s life for the better. We are currently running studies to integrate these methods of increasing purpose in life by exploring self-transcendence values effects on purpose in order to foster positive health behaviors.
We hypothesize that those who reflected and wrote about self-transcendence values will report higher purpose in life and greater intentions to exercise.
We are testing whether values will increase one’s sense of purpose by having participants either write about the importance of self-transcendence values (helping others) or non-self transcendence values (activities aim at focusing on the self). Participants in the control condition will complete the same task as the treatment groups but instead their writing task will focus on writing about factors that influence the weather and how they influence the weather. Participants will then complete a few scales assessing their purpose in life and intentions to exercise within the next month. We hypothesize that those who reflected and wrote about self-transcendence values will report higher purpose in life and greater intentions to exercise. We suspect that self-transcendence values will enable the individual to understand that they are a part of and contributing to something that is bigger than the self. Therefore, these individuals will engage in positive health behaviors in order to further contribute to something beyond their needs. Besides increasing purpose through values we also plan to design studies to further increase purpose in life through goal setting and social inclusion.
As mentioned, we are not only finding additional ways to increase purpose in life but we are also incorporating questions that will assess one’s intent to exercise. Previous research has successfully increase purpose in life but unfortunately there aren’t any studies that measures one’s intent to engage in health behaviors as an outcome of having a higher purpose . We intend to fill this research gap and if we find a causal relationship between purpose in life and health behaviors, our next step includes understanding the mechanism between this relationship.
Current research on purpose and health has shown promising results. There is still much work to be done — purpose is deeply personal, expansive, multi-faceted, and abstract. However, these things that make purpose such a challenging area of research are also the things that make it such an important one. Purpose provides clarity, meaning, and direction for our lives. It may help us to see obstacles as surmountable. Rather than intervening at the level of individual health behaviors, we may see a bigger benefit in putting the work in to build (and support) environments that foster purpose.
Check out the infographic below that provides a brief summary of the purpose in life and health research.
Shanta Ricks is a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Is your organization in any other way interested in health research with CAH? Contact Jan Willem Lindemans, Principal, at email@example.com.
(1) Steger, M. F., Fitch-Martin, A., Donnelly, J., & Rickard, K. M. (2014). Meaning in life and health: Proactive health orientation links meaning in life to health variables among American undergraduates. Journal of Happiness Studies, 58(3), 583–597.
(2) Hooker, S. A., & Masters, K. S. (2016b). Purpose in life is associated with physical activity measured by accelerometer. Journal of Health Psychology, 21, 962–971.
(3) Kim E.S., Strecher, V.J, Ryff, C.D. (2014). Purpose in life and use of preventive health care services. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 111, 16331-16336
(4) Kim E.S, Hershner, S.D, Strecher, V.J. (2015).Purpose in life and incidence of sleep disturbances. J Behav Med, 38,:590-597
(5) Kim E.S., Sun, J.K., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2013). Purpose in life and reduced incidence of stroke in older adults: “The Health and Retirement Study”. J Psychosom Res, 74, 427-432
(6) Czekierda, K., Banik, A., Park, C. L., & Luszczynska, A. (2017). Meaning in life and physical health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 11, 387-418
(7) Czekierda, K., Banik, A., Park, C. L., & Luszczynska, A. (2017). Meaning in life and physical health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 11, 387-418
(8) Steger, M. F., Fitch-Martin, A., Donnelly, J., & Rickard, K. M. (2014). Meaning in life and health: Proactive health orientation links meaning in life to health variables among American undergraduates. Journal of Happiness Studies, 58(3), 583–597.
(9) Holahan, C., Holahan, C., Velasquez, K., Jung, S., North, R., Pahl, S. (2011). Purposiveness and leisure-time physical activity in women in early midlife. Women and Health, 51, 661-675
(10) Kang, Y., Strecher, V.J., Kim, E., & Falk, E.B. (2019). Purpose in life and conflict-related neural responses during health decision-making. Health Psychology, 38, 545-552
(11) Burrow, A. L., Hill, P. L., & Sumner, R. (2016). Leveling mountains: Purpose attenuates links between perceptions of effort and steepness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(1), 94–103
(12) Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J. A., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R. F., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). To belong is to matter: Sense of Belonging enhances meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology in Bulletin, 39. 1418-1427.
(13) Hicks, J. A., & King, L. A., Krull, J.L., & Del Gaiso, A.K.(2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 9-, 176-179
(14) Tongeren, D. R. V., Green, J. D., Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., and Hulsey, T. L. (2016). Prosociality enhances meaning in life. J. Posit. Psychol. 11, 225–236.
(15) Chippendale, T., & Boltz, M. (2015). Living Legends: Effectiveness of a program to enhance sense of purpose and meaning in life among community-dwelling older adults. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69(4), 1-11.