Purposeful People Live Longer—and Better—According to Research
Dr. Yuhong Dong Dec 25 2022
Scientists have discovered that finding positive meaning in life is closely related to one’s health. The more purposeful one’s life is, the stronger one’s immune system.
In 2003, Dr. Julienne Bower led a team of researchers in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences to conduct a bereavement-related disclosure intervention study on 43 females who recently lost their close relatives, mostly mothers, to breast cancer. Their findings were published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. The participants averaged 42 years old. The study lasted for four weeks.
We know that the grief from losing a loved one can cause the release of stress hormones, and decrease immune functions and the body’s ability to fight viruses and cancer. Thus, these participants were at high risk of breast cancer.
The study, which lasted four weeks, found that the probability of one getting breast cancer is related to one’s thoughts. Those who started to actively search for the purposes of life had stronger Natural Killer (NK) cell functions, leading to a decreased risk of breast cancer. That is to say, the philosophical topic of life purpose has a direct relationship to our immune functions of cells.
Natural Killer Cells and Cancer
First, let’s take a look at NK cells. They are a type of immune cell, which makes up about 5 to 10 percent of Peripheral blood lymphocytes. An array inhibitory (red) and activating (green) surface receptors enable the functions of NK cells. The inhibitory receptors recognize healthy cells and do not activate the NK cells.
Activating receptors recognize tumors and viral infections. Then the NK cells are activated and come into direct contact with the diseased cells, releasing perforin and punching holes directly on the diseased cells. Granulocyte enzymes, which can break down cellular components, secrete tumor necrosis factor, and induce apoptosis of tumor cells, thus destroying virus-infected cells and tumor cells.
Reducing Mortality and Lessening Cardiovascular Events
Searching and thinking about the purpose of life can not only strengthen the immune cells, but also influence other bodily functions.
A strong sense of life purpose is defined as having a purpose in life and being responsible for one’s own actions. Experts in psychosomatic medicine recommend it as an important factor in promoting mental health and increasing one’s own resilience.
In 2015, Psychosomatic Medicine published a meta study investigating the relationship between purpose in life, mortality, and cardiovascular events. Ten prospective studies with a total of 136,265 participants were included in the analysis. Their average age was 67 and the study lasted for 7.3 years. During this time frame, there were 14,518 deaths and 4,316 cardiovascular events.
The meta study shows 17 percent lowered risks of cardiovascular events and various cause deaths in people who led a more purposeful life. The results vary with factors, such as age and baseline cardiovascular diseases.
The first author of the study, Randy Cohen from Mt Sinai St Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, concluded that “possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events,” and that nurturing and perfecting one’s sense of responsibility can improve cardiovascular health and save life.
All of us should ask ourselves this important question, do we have a purpose in life? If not, we might want to seek an important purpose in life in order to obtain holistic health.
Reducing Dementia in the Elderly
A study published in 2019 General Psychiatry examined 951 seniors with an average age of 80 over seven years, during which time 155 persons, or 16.6 percent, contracted Alzheimer’s disease.
The study showed people with a higher sense of purpose in life have 51 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with a lower purpose of life. The relationship is drawn after adjustment based on age, gender and education level.
The red line shows those who scored high on life goals, and the green line is those who scored low, indicating a clear difference in their likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease. This association is independent of risk factors and is not influenced by other confounding factors such as depression, neuroticism, social size, and chronic illness.
Also, people with high life goals have a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by 29%, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
Reducing Mortality in the Elderly
Establishing a life goal can benefit other aspects of health as well. In a 2009 paper published in Psychosomatic Medicine, data from two longitudinal follow-up studies were used to evaluate 1,238 older adults without dementia over a five-year follow-up period.
The analysis showed that those who scored high on the purpose in life assessment had a 43 percent lower risk of death than those who scored low. This result did not include the effects of age, gender, education, or race.
Why Positive Purpose Is Good for Health
Why is having a positive purpose in life good for health? Let’s look at three aspects.
First, an overall increase in immunity has a positive impact on the prevention of chronic inflammatory states, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
We have previously described that a self-fulfilling happiness mindset helps to maintain a good antiviral, as well as an anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory status in the body. Research found that this eudaimonic (altruistic, self-actualization) mindset contains an important element, which is the establishment of a correct life goal.
The concept of an eudaimonic view of happiness includes the pursuit of life goals, autonomous living, and positive thinking (living in the present moment), kindness, and altruism.
NK cells are distributed in the peripheral blood, spleen, lymphatic system, lungs, skin, subcutaneous adipose tissue, kidneys, liver, and other organs to monitor and remove diseased cells. They are the guardians of the body’s health and the special patrols of the whole body.
People with a sense of purpose in life tend to be goal-oriented in their daily activities, and this mindset contributes to longevity.
People who have a higher purpose in life use preventive health care services more often and are hospitalized less often. People who value life pay more attention to the prevention of disease triggers, care more about health care, and do not do things or act in ways that harm their health. Naturally, this worldview leads to healthy outcomes.
For example, smoking is known to cause lung cancer. But why do some people still smoke? It may be a lack of a sense of purpose in life, or the inability to control themselves.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Emil Frankl (March 26, 1905–Sept. 2, 1997) was an advocate of Existential Psychoanalysis. He was born in a Jewish family in Austria and was a survivor of the Holocaust.
Dr. Frankl has received honorary doctorates from 29 universities around the world and has published 39 books. His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” has sold 9 million copies.
Frankl was imprisoned four times in Nazi concentration camps, but survived. During his experience, he discovered that some of his fellow prisoners were more likely to survive than others.
He believes that “people who feel that life is meaningless and that there is no purpose in life are usually pessimistic and disappointed. Without the belief that life has a purpose to support him, he will soon lose the confidence to live.”
He founded logotherapy (meaning therapy) based on his own experience, which is to help patients understand the meaning of life, change their outlook on life, face reality, and live a positive and optimistic life.
In Greek, “logos” means “meaning.” Logotherapy emphasizes “the meaning of existence” and the “pursuit of such meaning.”
Logotherapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on guiding people to find and discover the meaning of life, to establish clear goals in life, and to face or master life with a positive attitude. It is different from psychoanalysis in that it takes a broader perspective and explores life in depth, and through the diagnosis of life problems, it enables the client to gain meaning in life.
Logotherapy considers the human being to be a three-dimensional being, a physical, mental, and spiritual entity, and is in fact holistic healing. It has three basic, interrelated beliefs:
- The freedom of will—this is on the spiritual level. Some people’s will is not free, such as psychosis patients.
- The will to seek for life meaning—this is the foundation of responsibility in life, it is active and original.
- The meaning of life—which is different from person to person and from time to time. One needs to think in order to find it.
When we face hardships, it is usually our strong will that originates from the purpose of life that supports us and motivates us.
I was once seriously ill and was given a notice of critical condition, but at that time I had a firm belief that I had to live and that there were many important things for me to fulfill. With such a simple belief, I survived.
Frankl described his personal experience in the concentration camp as a “miserable life.” He forced himself to turn to another topic. Suddenly, he had a vision of giving a speech about the psychology of concentration camps.
He used this method to overcome the harsh environment. He regarded all the sufferings as history, as if he was examining history. This way, all the suffering became the subject of his psychological research.
Therefore, if one can set a more ambitious goal in life, the hardships one suffers and the suffering one endures may become one’s unique life experience and lead to greater brilliance.
Just now we looked at some positive examples, but of course there are also negative examples.
During the pandemic, people were forced to take vaccines, which actually deprives people of their free will. From the perspective of meaningful treatment, it is harmful to people’s health, for example suppressing immunity and NK cell function. The vaccine mandates can only harm people’s health.
In addition, people who live in authoritarian regimes have no freedom of thought, low freedom of will, so their will to pursue meaningful goals is weak. This may have a negative impact on their health.
Thoughts and Destiny
We have just shared that setting positive life goals is associated with better health, less incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, longer life, and less occurrence of cardiovascular disease.
Thought determines behavior, behavior determines character, and character determines destiny. Dr. Frankl’s favorite quote from German philosopher Nietzsche is “Those who know the ‘why’ of life can endure almost ‘any’ pain.”
Let’s find the meaning of life with our hearts and minds, and gain the true meaning of health.
Spirituality or mentality is not far away from us, but rather has a practical implication in our health, wellbeing, and quality of our daily life.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Epoch Health welcomes professional discussion and friendly debate. To submit an opinion piece, please follow these guidelines and submit through our form here.
Dr. Yuhong Dong, a medical doctor who also holds a doctorate in infectious diseases in China, is the chief scientific officer and co-founder of a Swiss biotech company and former senior medical scientific expert for antiviral drug development at Novartis Pharma in Switzerland.