science of us

Oh No, People With a Sense of Purpose Are Healthier

Photo: Panda~thwiki/Wikicommons

Just when I’d made my peace (well, not really) with my lack of purpose in life, a new study comes out claiming that purpose-driven people make healthier choices.

The study found that participants who reported having a sense of mission and direction were more likely to “agree with health messages” — specifically, with statements “encouraging physical activity.” The participants without a sense of purpose apparently had more activation in the “conflict processing” center of their brains and were less likely to “agree” with the healthy statements. Okay, so the study was sort of weird (and it gets weirder the more you dig into it).

But supposing it’s true — supposing it’s easier to do healthy things, make healthy choices, defer pleasure in the moment, and focus on long-term goals when you believe you’re here for a reason. It would make sense. Commitment to fitness and nutrition, for instance, might be easier if you felt a need to preserve yourself to accomplish a mission.

Personally, I’d say I’m the reverse: preoccupied with health but purposeless. Although maybe it’s the definition of “purpose” that trips me up. I’ve thought of it as intrinsically all-consuming, akin to a religious conversion — one thing, one mission, above all else. Something to put in a single word in a Twitter bio: mother, wife, entertainer, astronaut. But maybe purpose can be something between the words, or if it is a word, it could be private. Maybe purpose can be small; maybe it takes up 20 percent of life instead of 80 percent.

Anyway, presuming it’s true that people with purpose make healthy choices, what does it mean to make healthy choices without feeling purposeful? Maybe it means I do have a purpose after all, and I’m just giving myself time to figure it out. Or maybe it’s all nonsense: Sometimes we make healthy choices because we have a purpose, and sometimes we make healthy choices because we’re holding out hope that new purposes will come our way.

Oh No, People With a Sense of Purpose Are Healthier