People who have a sense of purpose in life have clear reasons for what they want to do. They perceive that their lives have direction and goals, and they are motivated towards achieving these goals. Having a sense of purpose has been shown to correlate with adopting healthier lifestyle behaviors, including increased physical activity and preventive healthcare use, as well as getting adequate hours of sleep and reducing the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. Growing research indicates that living with a sense of purpose may thus be linked to better physical functioning and lower risks of cardiovascular disease or cognitive decline.
A new study, led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher, has investigated whether people with a higher sense of purpose also have a lower risk of death, and whether this relationship is affected by race/ethnicity or by gender. Previous research has indicated that living with purpose lowers the risk of mortality, but that this relationship is affected by socioeconomic status because wealthier people are able to adopt lifestyle changes that less well-off people cannot.
“Having a purpose in life has been known to improve many health outcomes on average,” says study lead author Dr. Koichiro Shiba, assistant professor of epidemiology at BUSPH. “In another study I led, we found that the effect of purpose on lowering all-cause mortality may differ by socioeconomic status. In this study, we extended the prior evidence and found that the beneficial effect of purpose persisted regardless of gender and race/ethnicity.”
For the study, Dr. Shiba and colleagues at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative cohort study of U.S. adults aged 50 and older. The 13,159 participants self-reported their sense of purpose at the start of the study (between 2006 and 2008), using the “purpose in life” of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales, a widely used tool that measures different aspects of well-being and happiness. The researchers then assessed the risk of mortality from all causes for the participants, over an eight-year follow up period.
The results, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, show that there is a link between having a sense of purpose and having a reduced risk of mortality from all causes. People with the highest sense of purpose had the lowest risk of death (15.2 percent mortality risk) over the eight-year follow up, compared to people with the lowest sense of purpose, who had a 36.5 percent risk of mortality.
This association persisted across all gender and race/ethnicity groups, and was even slightly more pronounced in women, than in men. A person’s race/ethnicity made no significant difference to the relationship – all groups showed reduced mortality risk in individuals with a higher sense of purpose.
Dr. Shiba speculates that the stronger purpose-mortality association observed in women may be attributable to gender difference in the use of healthcare services, which is “one of the postulated pathways linking purpose and health.”
“Evidence suggests men tend to underuse necessary healthcare services, due to social norm. However, future study investigating the mechanisms underlying the gender difference is warranted.”
In the past, the biomedical sciences and public health policy makers have focused on methods to improve health outcomes by reducing risk factors. This is a deficit-based approach that has generated important scientific insights and interventions, but has emphasized negative factors. Emerging research has, instead, shed light on the health benefits of a strengths-based approach, which focuses on health-promoting assets. According to the researchers, purpose in life is one of these health assets and it can be developed in individuals in order to improve health and well-being.
“This evidence on effect heterogeneity tells us whether population-level purpose interventions can promote people’s health, not only on average, but also in an equitable manner,” Dr. Shiba says. “Although evidence suggests purpose interventions would not lead to widening racial disparities in mortality, policymakers should also be aware of other sources of heterogeneity, such as socioeconomic status and gender.”
“Even though people may view a sense of purpose as a ‘psychological’ factor, its impacts on health cannot be explained solely by processes that operate in our mind and biology. We need to consider how the psychological factor interacts with our social world and ultimately impacts our health.”
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