I was never a believer. Sure, I forcibly showed up to Sunday school until eighth-grade confirmation spared me from the weekly burden. But I knew by age seven that Catholicism wasn’t for me, and I've never turned back. But at some point in my 20s, however, I started to feel unexpected pangs of jealousy when I'd jog past churches and catch a glimpse of parishioners shuffling into pews.
It’s not that I question my secular ethical value system (I don’t) or that I feel untethered without a community of like-minded worshippers (nope). Instead, it’s the pre-fab sense of purpose that religion offers. Even without passions to pursue, talent to cultivate or emotional bonds to build, God-fearing folks automatically have something to live for. Absent the assurance of posthumous ascension, we non-believers need to find a reason to trek through the years. We could go the nihilistic route. But, not only does the prospect of living for nothing fill me with irrepressible despair; having a purpose, a new study says, also corresponds to heart health and longevity.
To assess the relationship between sense of purpose, cardiovascular health and risk of death, psychologists evaluated 10 studies, involving over 136,000 participants, and published their analysis in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. The studies mainly concerned American and Japanese adults, who averaged 67 years old and whose health and wellbeing researchers tracked for seven years, on average. During this time period, 14,500 participants died and over 4,000 had cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes.
After crunching all the data, and taking into account other health factors, authors of the meta-study found a lower risk of mortality and cardiovascular hiccups among people with a high sense of purpose. The link between living longer and living for something persisted across both countries.
“Sense of purpose” is, arguably, the sort of broad concept that eludes precise measure. Researchers included U.S. studies in which participants verbatim evaluated their purpose in life, as well as the meaning of life and their “usefulness to others.” Japaneses studies assessed a concept called “ikigai,” which roughly translates to a “life worth living.”
“Nevertheless, the medical implications of living with a high or low sense of life purpose have only recently caught the attention of investigators," said study author Alan Rozanski in a press release. "The current findings are important because they may open up new potential interventions for helping people to promote their health and sense of well-being.”
These findings dovetail with an interesting body of work on the relationship between emotional and psychological well-being and longevity. For example, loneliness — another somewhat squishy notion — has been linked to shorter, sicklier lives. We shouldn't hastily assert that any one component of our emotional lives has a specific and certain affect on physical health, but we also shouldn't ignore what research continues to show: How we feel is relevant to how we fare.