New Research Links a Greater Sense of Purpose to a Lower Risk of Death

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Having a sense of purpose in life, or a clear direction and meaning in one’s actions and pursuits has been linked to various physical and mental health benefits. It can provide a sense of motivation and drive, as well as a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction. Some research suggests that having a sense of purpose may be associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as a reduced risk of developing certain health conditions.

According to a new study, having a sense of purpose in life may have health benefits that are independent of race/ethnicity and gender. The study also found that women may potentially experience slightly more health benefits than men from having a sense of purpose.

A new study led by a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health has found that individuals with a higher sense of purpose in life may be at a lower risk of death from any cause, regardless of race/ethnicity or gender.

Previous research has suggested that having a sense of purpose may be linked to a range of health benefits, including improved physical functioning and reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. This latest study adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the importance of having a sense of purpose in promoting overall health and well-being.

Published in the journal Preventive Medicine, the study results did suggest that this association is slightly stronger among women than it is among men, but there was no significant difference by race/ethnicity.

“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 that 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 (Harvard Chan) utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of US adults ages 50 and older. The team assessed self-reported sense of purpose among more than 13,000 people, based on 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 also examined mortality risk over an eight-year period beginning between 2006-2008.

The results showed that people with the highest sense of purpose indicated the lowest risk of death (15.2 percent mortality risk), compared to people with the lowest sense of purpose (36.5 percent mortality risk).

The team also gathered data on additional factors that can influence health, such as socioeconomic status, other demographic characteristics, baseline physical health, and depression, and found that an increase in these factors was also associated with increases in a higher sense of purpose.

Dr. Shiba speculates that the stronger observed purpose-mortality association in women may be attributable to the gender differences in the use of healthcare services, “one of the postulated pathways linking purpose and health,” he says. “Evidence suggests men tend to underuse necessary healthcare services, due to social norms. However, future study investigating the mechanisms underlying the gender difference is warranted.”

These findings can help inform future policies and other efforts 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 SES and gender. Even though people may view 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.”

Reference: “Purpose in life and 8-year mortality by gender and race/ethnicity among older adults in the U.S” by Koichiro Shiba, Laura D. Kubzansky, David R. Williams, Tyler J. VanderWeele and Eric S. Kim, 22 October 2022, Preventative Medicine.
DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2022.107310

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Wellbeing for Planet Earth Foundation. 

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