Many people live life with the modern scientific view that life is inherently meaningless beyond the physical here and now, and that we are a random and fleeting assembly of matter that experiences what we call life. Increasingly however, some search for meaning or purpose to our existence because they feel something inside them that says there must be more to life than just what they see with their eyes. They seek purpose in their lives beyond mere existence and the answer to the age-old question: what is the meaning of life?
But why does the answer to such a seemingly simple question elude so many people? Why is it that even our oldest evidence of human civilisations past shows in its inscriptions and architecture that we knew or were at least pondering this question eons ago, and yet today humanity seems to have lost the answer?
Modern science has been exploring the notion of purpose and how it affects our health and the results of these studies give insight to this age-old question. A steadily growing body of research is finding strong connections between our sense of purpose and multiple facets of our health. One study found a link between inflammatory processes in the body and ‘positive ties with others and purposeful engagement’ (Friedman et al, 2007). Another study found a link between a positive sense of purpose and lower levels of cardiovascular risk and improved sleep patterns (Ryff et al, 2004). In a third study, the conclusion was made that having a sense of purpose in life affected the risk of death as a result of cardiovascular disease and stroke (Koizumi et al, 2004). A recent study (Steptoe and Fancourt, 2019) comprehensively investigated and made conclusions that independently of age, sex, educational attainment, and socioeconomic status, a higher sense of purpose was associated with: stronger personal relationships, broader social engagement, less loneliness, greater prosperity (wealth and income), improved mental and physical health, less chronic pain, less disability, less obesity, increased favourable biomarkers, healthier lifestyles, more time spent exercising and in social activities and less time watching television.
These are a few examples of the growing number of studies that arrive at the same conclusion: having a meaningful sense of purpose in our lives significantly improves our health, wellbeing, relationships, prosperity and longevity. But what constitutes ‘meaningful’ purpose, and does the intent of this purpose affect our health as well?
Modern science has begun exploring this question and has found revealing clues in the most unlikely of places. In 2013 Barbara Fredrickson and her research group examined a gene in the human body which they called the CTRA (conserved transcriptional response to adversity) gene, and its response to the quality of purpose in our lives. The interesting thing is that this gene is normally activated in ‘fight-or-flight’ stress responses and results in the body shunting all available energy to parts and functions of the body required for fighting or fleeing. It also suppresses all non-essential-in-emergency responses such as immune response and digestion and increases inflammation in preparation for imminent injury. All of this is not an issue and quite beneficial if you are running away from being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger, but if it is a longer-term stress such as an abusive relationship, the body treats the stress response in the same way. Your body interprets the angry boss at work yelling at you in the same way as a sabre-tooth tiger trying to eat you! So, what does this have to do with purpose? Well, it turns out that the body also treats lack and quality of purpose in life the same way as that sabre-tooth tiger or angry boss!
The role of the CTRA gene and its impact on our health in relation to our sense of purpose, was well known at this point. Put simply, it had been determined that if you have meaningful purpose in your life, you live longer and healthier due to the mechanisms of the CTRA gene. However, Fredrickson’s research went a step further and asked the question; what about the quality of that purpose? Do you receive the same beneficial health effects with a purpose of buying that sports car you always wanted as opposed to a purpose of serving your community in some way? To answer this, Fredrickson’s research divided the quality or intent of purpose into two categories. The hedonistic form representing a self-gratifying form of purpose and a eudaemonic form representing a more noble and meaningful form of purpose beyond self-gratification. Their study focussed on how these two forms of purpose affect the expression of the CTRA gene and how this in turn, predicts health. Interestingly, participants in the study reported no difference in how they immediately felt regardless of the type of purpose (hedonistic or eudaemonic) they aligned with. However, their genes were telling a different story, and in fact the CTRA gene differentiated between hedonistic and eudaemonic forms of purpose! In other words, they found people who had selfish forms of purpose in their lives experienced increased inflammation and decreased immune response, similar to those with no purpose. Fredrickson concluded that “the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways to achieving happiness than the conscious mind.”
The implications of these studies are tremendous. Inflammation has become one of the hottest buzzwords in medical science. It has been found to be a causative factor in a vast majority of diseases. Everything from Alzheimer’s, allergies, cancers and cardiovascular diseases can be at least partially attributed to chronic inflammation. With this in mind and knowing that heath care systems around the world are collapsing under the strain of increasing presentation of diseases caused by chronic inflammation, is it then possible that there is a link between societies that are increasingly finding it difficult to answer that age old question ‘what is the meaning of life’ and the increasing prevalence of inflammatory diseases and our collapsing health care systems?
|Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M. G., … Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), 13684–13689. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110|
Friedman, E. M., Hayney, M., Love, G. D., Singer, B. H., & Ryff, C. D. (2007). Plasma interleukin-6 and soluble IL-6 receptors are associated with psychological well-being in aging women. Health Psychology, 26(3), 305–313. doi: 10.1037/0278-6184.108.40.2065
Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., & Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of Having a Sense of Purpose in Life on the Risk of Death from Cardiovascular Diseases. Journal of Epidemiology, 18(5), 191–196. doi: 10.2188/jea.je2007388
Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Love, G. D. (2004). Positive health: connecting well–being with biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1383–1394. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1521
Steptoe, A., & Fancourt, D. (2019). Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(4), 1207–1212. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1814723116