People who have a sense of purpose in their life tend to make healthier lifestyle choices and report feeling better about their own health status, according to a new study.
“Our analysis found that participants’ sense of purpose was positively associated with their reports of both vigorous and moderate activity, vegetable intake, flossing, and sleep quality,” says the study’s lead author Patrick Hill, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University at St. Louis.
The study, which appears in the Journal of Health Psychology, set out to identify pathways and mechanisms that might explain how a sense of purpose contributes to health benefits. The analysis uses data from the long-running Hawaii Longitudinal Study of Personality and Health, including new surveys of a diverse group of 749 people with an average age of 60.
Hawaii study participants were initially surveyed as children, part of an original community sample of elementary school students on the islands of Oahu and Kauai, and have been re-contacted as adults to complete surveys approximately every two years. The sample is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity.
The Big Five
“Participants reporting a higher sense of purpose also reported a greater likelihood to enact all health behaviors of interest and higher self-rated health,” Hill says. “Overall, these findings point to the importance of considering healthy lifestyle habits as a prominent explanation for why purposeful individuals experience better health outcomes.”
“These caveats aside, the findings again support the case that a purpose-driven life may also be a healthier life.”
One goal of the study was to show that having a purpose in life has positive health effects that are independent of the Big Five personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Participants completed measures of sense of purpose, health behaviors, and self-reported health, which were combined with their self-reports on the Big Five personality traits from a survey conducted two years earlier.
Participants responded to a series of health behavior questions, such as how often they ate healthy vegetables, how well they slept, and whether they flossed routinely. They also rated how often in a typical week they engaged in strenuous exercise or moderate exercise, such as: running/jogging vs. walking; surfing/kayaking/windsurfing vs. sailing; basketball vs. volleyball; vigorous swimming vs. easy swimming; and so on.
What flossing indicates
As the authors note, some behaviors they examined serve as proxies for broader health variables. For instance, if an individual flosses regularly, that person is likely to participate in other healthy activities. Eating vegetables on regular basis signals healthy eating habits. Sleep quality has been associated with reduced stress, Hill says.
Researchers examined each behavior independently and in combination with other behaviors and demographic variables, such as personality type. In all scenarios, having a sense of purpose had a significant direct effect on self-rated health and a more modest, indirect effect on individual health behaviors.
“Participants who reported a higher sense of purpose also reported greater strenuous and moderate activity, likelihood to eat vegetables and floss, as well as better quality sleep,” Hill says. “All of these associations held even when controlling for the Big Five personality traits, with the exception of flossing behavior.”
The findings provide further evidence that the health benefits associated with sense of purpose cannot be fully attributable to broad personality traits, such as the Big Five. They suggest that having a purpose in life can be viewed as a multifaceted construct that influences both self-regulatory capacity and specific behaviors, such as physical activity, sleep quality, diet, and self-care.
“Future research should disentangle whether the specific health behaviors examined here are directly responsible for the purpose-health association or whether some of them may simply be indicators for other health behaviors that are really driving the association,” Hill says.
“These caveats aside,” Hill says, “the findings again support the case that a purpose-driven life may also be a healthier life.”
The United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging supported the research. Additional coauthors of the study are from the Oregon Research Institute.