November 3, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Having a Purpose in Life Can Be Healthy

Who spends more time in the hospital?  People with nothing to live for.

Another study shows the value of having a purpose in life.  Published in PNAS, the study by psychologist Eric S. Kim of the University of Michigan and two colleagues found a correlation between health and purpose in life regardless of age, sex, or social status.  “‘Purpose in Life’ a boon to your health,” a summary on Medical Xpress says.  This was one of the first studies to examine “whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions.”  The results correlate well with an earlier study reported in May (Medical Xpress).

Why would the correlation be strong?  “We hypothesized that people with higher purpose would be more proactive in taking care of their health, as indicated by a higher likelihood of using preventive health care services,” the abstract states.  “We also hypothesized that people with higher purpose would spend fewer nights in the hospital.”  To measure health habits, they researched which individuals took proactive health exams (such as mammograms or prostate exams), and how many nights they spent in the hospital over a six-year period.  The multi-year follow-up allowed for life changes that might result in loss of a sense of purpose, such as retirement.

Purpose was measured on a six-point Likert scale based on responses to positive questions such as “I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life,” or “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them,” and negative questions such as “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.”  The researchers corrected for demographic factors, religiosity and positive affect (emotion).

In the study of 7,168 individuals, both men and women, old and young, Dr. Kim found that proactive health habits were stronger from 6 to 30% depending on the measure, and hospital stays were 17% less in individuals with strong purpose scores.  Additionally, the study noted that “An increasing number of randomized controlled trials show that purpose in life can be raised.”  A purpose-driven attitude, therefore, is not a static trait, like a genetic characteristic.

It’s only an association, Kim notes, but it appears to be strong and predictive. Dr. Kim believes these results “may inform the development of new strategies that increase the use of preventive health care services, offset the burden of rising health care costs, and enhance the quality of life among people moving into the ranks of our aging society.”

Update 11/08/14: Another study shows that having a purpose can increase your lifespan, too.  A study at University College London reported on Medical Xpress showed a significant reduction in death rate for 9,050 seniors after an 8.5-year follow-up period who scored high on questionnaires for “eudaimonic well-being,” defined as “your sense of control, feeling that what you do is worthwhile, and your sense of purpose in life.”

One thing studies like this cannot study is which purpose is a better purpose.  If your purpose is to blow up enemies with remote-controlled car bombs, to riot in the streets, or to cheat your way to riches, it doesn’t matter if you get a prostate exam and get out of the hospital sooner.  It would be better in such a case that you stay incapacitated as long as possible.  But it’s just as vain to feel happy pursuing a falsehood, like a false worldview.  Being delusional is not good, even if it increases your health.  A good purpose will involve truth and love.

Biblical Christianity meets both requirements of strong moral purpose and truth.  One can have confidence in the claims of Christ since He demonstrated His truth by rising from the dead.  And personally, Christ followers see Him work in their lives with answers to prayer and joy in understanding His word.  For the community, Christianity promotes faith, hope, and love—three things the world could really use right now.

Feel the joy of Barnabas in Acts 11:22-24 as the good news of Christ began to spread through Rome’s pagan culture:  “The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose,  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.”  Would that Antioch (now in southern Turkey near the border with Syria) were that way today.

I’ve heard countless true stories of lives turned from crime to love, from despair to hope, from weakness to power.  You could be one of them.  Are you drifting aimlessly?  Is your life worth living?  It could be filled with purpose like the life of the Apostle Paul, who turned from a life of hate to a life of sharing good news of God’s grace.  Hear the former persecutor of Christians feeling the joy of the Lord in his repurposed life as an ambassador of love after God saved him and showed him the way of truth: read Colossians 1 and II Corinthians 5.


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