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The Health Benefits of Finding Meaning and Purpose

Shannon Harvey

In 2009 I found myself in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa the day after a 3.5 metre tsunami rolled through and killed more than one hundred people. I was there as a video journalist — a one-man band traveling with a light camera and editing kit in order to get to people and places conventional crews cannot. At the heart of my story were the remarkable people from the Australian Federal Police Disaster Victim Identification team who worked tirelessly to find and identify the missing tsunami victims so their families could get closure.  

I felt that the story was so important that I had dropped everything back home in order to tell it and went for days without stopping for food and proper sleep. These actions meant that I paid a costly price with my health when I got home. I was stressed out, overwhelmed, and functioning on fumes. My autoimmune disease, which I’d been diagnosed with five years before, flared up. The fatigue and inflammation that comes with having the disease took over my body. I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. Everything hurt. Every nerve. Every muscle. Every joint.  

A few weeks later, despite the compelling accounts of the people who opened their hearts to me on camera, it was decided that the story didn’t fit into the program schedule and it never went to air. To this day, no one has seen it. This experience was a turning point for me. It forced me to think about the work I had done over the years and about the stories I had reported. I realised that I could count on one hand the number of times I had actually made any kind of lasting impact through my work and yet I would give it everything I had, at immeasurable personal expense. I started to reflect on what mattered to me most and in what order those things should come on my list of priorities. It turned out that by seriously reconsidering what was truly important to me and why, my health started turning around too.  

There is now increasing evidence suggesting that the more meaning and purpose people feel they have, the better health they have. For instance, a two year study of more than 1,500 adults with heart disease found that every one point increase on a six point ‘purpose in life’ scale resulted in a 27 percent lower risk of suffering a heart attack. There is also accruing evidence to suggest that having meaning and purpose may help you actually live longer. In 2013, a research team identified 70 studies that examined the relationship between meaning in life and various indicators of health. When they compiled the data, they found that overall, “higher levels of meaning are clearly associated with better physical health, as well as with behavioural factors that decrease the probability of negative health outcomes or increase that of positive health outcomes.”  

It’s this connection between meaning in life and healthy behaviour that may well be the key to unlocking the health secrets of meaning and purpose. In 2015, researchers found that Hungarian teenagers who reported having greater meaning in their lives were more likely to eat healthily and exercise more. This is supported by a large 2014 study of more than 7,000 Americans, which found that the higher people scored on a purpose in life scale, the more likely they were to have various screening tests including cholesterol tests, colonoscopies, mammograms, Pap tests and prostate exams over the next six years. At the same time those purpose-driven people spent more time on preventive health care, they also spent less time in the hospital.  

The fact that when you have meaning and purpose in your life you are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours makes total sense. When you feel that your existence matters, you have direction. You feel that what you do every day is important, and you feel driven to behave in ways that allow you to work toward your goals.  

When I look back seven years ago and compare the version of myself to who was flattened with fatigue and arthritis after the Samoa trip with the 35-year-old me who writes these words today, I have completely rewritten my list of priorities. In the past, work was always number one. Objectives, targets and key milestones came unquestioningly before my health and my loved ones. Now, it’s my health as number one, and being a dedicated, present and reliable wife, mother and friend as number two. Although I’m far from perfect, and at times find it hard to get the balance right, as passionate as I am about my work, it now comes in third.  

Unfortunately there’s no tried and tested scientific formula you can apply to finding your own life’s purpose. It doesn’t have to be a cosmic mission to save the world. While some people find meaning in rallying people to a cause, others find it in the act of comforting a sick child, or making a nutritious meal to share with others. Some people find meaning in the creation of art or music, others in a neatly prepared spreadsheet. As you move through your life you’ll spend time doing things that are mundane and routine and you’ll spend time doing things that have significance and importance. It’s the things that are important to you that give you a sense of meaning and purpose. In your search for meaning, in many ways what you’re really asking is, “What can I do with my time that is important to me?”  

For further reading you might like to check out a new book by behavioral scientist Victor Strecher, professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, called Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything

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