Why are you here? What purpose is there for you in this world? These kind of deep-seated philosophical questions often crop up as people approach and enter adulthood. When I was a child during the late ’60s and early ’70s, I heard stories of young adults’ attempts to “find themselves” amid California’s hippie culture. As I grew up myself, I developed a longing to make a difference, to do something worthwhile, to have a purpose in life. Obviously, those of us who seek a purpose in life will hope for and work toward a positive one. And it turns out that scientific research demonstrates that having a positively purposeful, meaningful life is good for us.
A recent study examined purpose in life as measured by a seven-question rating instrument, with each question rated on a six-point Likert scale.1 The study included over 7,000 subjects (n=7,168), drawn from the Health and Retirement Study, that were followed for six years. The researchers found that higher life-purpose levels were, point-for-point, positively and significantly linked with a higher probability that subjects would get a variety of different health screening tests done, such as cancer screening exams and annual check-ups. They also showed that this same effect was related to spending fewer nights in the hospital, a strong predictor of healthcare costs and morbidity. As the research article points out, this is important because most people over 65 are not compliant with recommended preventative health screening measures. So, it’s important to identify modifiable factors related to behavior that increases use of these preventive services.
As a psychiatrist, I know that losing hope and feeling purposeless are significant risk factors for suicide. This research shows the flip side of that: having a sense of purpose in life improves health. Purpose adds value and meaning to existence; without it, there is less motivation to care about yourself or your health.
Other research papers have demonstrated the health benefits of religion (such as increased lifespan, improved mental health, and improved recovery from drug addiction)—and, as many believers can testify, a Christian life in particular is one of purpose and meaning. My own inner longing for meaning found satisfaction in serving God and helping others, as God commands us to do. Knowing that there is hope in Jesus for eternal salvation gives us purpose and a destiny that is assured.
To do our best in this life and to be able to care for others, we must stay healthy and care for ourselves. This research further supports what we know about the positive relationship religion and spirituality enjoys with both mental and physical health.
- Eric S. Kim, Victor J. Strecher, and Carol D. Ryff, “Purpose in Life and Use of Preventive Health Care Services,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA 111 (November 18, 2014): 16331–36.
By James Patterson II, MD, PhD
Dr. James C. Patterson II received his MD and PhD degrees from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 1996, and currently serves as Chief of Mental Health at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, LA. He is also a member of the Shreveport Chapter of RTB.