Study finds that people with less purpose in life have higher mortality rates

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How does one qualify days on our rotating ball of uninspired commotion?  In order to elevate this inquiry to a physiological arena,  a team of Harvard researchers conducted a cohort study of nearly 7,000 adults, finding a lack of purpose to be significantly associated with all-cause mortality.

“There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of purpose in life is associated with reduced risk of early death,” explained Eric S. Kim, PhD, a research scientist in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “However, this study showed for the first time that sense of purpose in life is associated with specific causes of death, and that’s an interesting advancement of knowledge.”

Association between life purpose and mortality

The participants reviewed in the new paper were pulled from a Health and Retirement Study comprised of adults between the ages of 51 and 61, alongside their spouses, who were not subject to an age standard for inclusion. Initiated in 1992, the respondents were administered a seven-item psychological questionnaire in 2006 designed to asses their emotional well-being.

Broadly, the sociodemographic and health characteristics consistently linked to higher mortality were advanced age, being male, singledom, and a history of smoking. More directly, individuals that scored low on the purpose category of the psychological questionnaire evidenced higher instances of heart, circulatory, digestive tract and blood conditions compared to their counterparts, though no association was successfully established between these and cancer or respiratory maladies.

From the report: “Low purpose in life was significantly associated with death among 6985 older adults participating in the HRS. This finding was robust to adjustment for psychological well-being constructs and also showed a trend with decreasing life purpose. This finding is in agreement with previous literature that used either a different life purpose measurement tool, often asked only a single question, or adjusted for only a subset of the potential confounders for which we were able to control.”

Because this analysis is novel in its depth, there is a margin in which to argue about the mechanisms that determined its findings. The best appraisal currently on offer is a transitive appreciation of the values indexed above. We know that purpose is an important element of emotional wellbeing and we know that emotional wellbeing governs various biomarkers.

Research conducted in the past has suggested that stronger well-being decreases expressions of proinflammatory genes. Similarly, a study published in 2005 intimated a correlation between emotional wellness and lower levels of cortisol in the blood. Beyond the very specific predictors posited by the new report and the ones that precede it, we must assume that a life that lacks purpose brings on a breed of psychological atrophy that ripples into overall ill-health.

For example, those who have observed an existential motivation to wake up every day are all the more likely to take measures to ensure they do so as many times as they possibly can. If you have a purpose, you’ll eat better, exercise more and maybe even drink less to adequately succor it. A purpose-driven life seems to energize a hardnosed temperament in the face of life’s unavoidable adversities.

“There’s some evidence from lab studies and studies that track people over time that suggests that people with a higher sense of purpose in life are less perturbed by various stressors, and also recover more quickly when they are more stressed out,” Kim continued.

The autocratic self

For me, the most provoking prescription found in Twilight of The Idols reads: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

There isn’t a rank higher than cliché for a maxim, given the only way to achieve such status is through a perfect balance of applicability and a nectarous rhythm that begs you repeat the adage as often as circumstance permits. The aforementioned Nietzscheism serves this criteria well, with the added boon of abating one of life’s most herculean difficulties.

The process of adjudicating purpose is often obstructed by an impact stigma. If the agent that motivates us doesn’t yield some obvious global impression we tend not to indulge in it. This preoccupation additionally urges the wrong questions when we’re trying to decipher meaning.

Recently, Ladders explored Steven C. Hayes’ A Liberated Mind; a meditation that propagates psychological flexibility as a means of mitigating meaninglessness. Hayes implores readers to elect chosen values over pre-established conventions of what purpose is supposed to feel and look like. Dispelling the myths that champion these conventions in the first place gives way to a new conundrum; that is finding purpose in a world without an ethical autocrat to reward our efforts. This is what Hayes refers to as the paradox of the modern world. 

“At the very moment that science and technology are providing us previously unimagined longevity, health, and social interaction, too many of us struggle to live meaningful peaceful lives full of love and contribution,” Hayes writes in his book.

There are a few potential salves to this problem, but all of them start with autonomy. Over the course of a long career, Alan Watts very poignantly demonstrated the harmony of self-government and chaos. Famously, the late epistemologist untangled why the expression is falling in love as opposed to rising in it-his way of challenging the notion of a purpose distributor in a strictly kingly sense. Watts believed that those who defined purpose on their own terms enjoyed life in an optimal manifestation of the experience.

Nietzsche surely located “the how” in the abstract , but the wisdom is clearly observable via a literal translation, as evidenced by the new study published in The Jama Network. More than just a philosophical curiosity, life-purpose is a modifiable risk factor that influences a plethora of physical health outcomes.

“There are a number of interventions that have been developed with the goal of improving life purpose. Intervention studies of volunteering well-being therapy and meditations,” the authors conclude. “Future research should focus on the mechanism of how life purpose may influence all-cause mortality and cause-specific mortality and on the appropriate timing of life purpose interventions in a diseased population.”