Purpose in Life Affects Brain Function

Purpose in life predicts greater well-being

Being more purposeful might help your brain

You can think well-being as including two parts: subjective and eudaimonic. Subjective well-being or life satisfaction reflects happiness and pleasure. Eudaimonic well-being reflects realizing your human potential. Psychologist Carol Ryff at the University of Wisconsin proposed six facets of eudaimonic well-being. They include personal growth, autonomy, positive relationships, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Purpose in life appears to be a key aspect of well-being, especially for older people. A purposeful life predicts increased engagement in life, healthy aging, and positive aspects of brain function. In other words, greater purpose in life predicts greater Quality of Lifespan—living longer and better. If you develop greater life purpose, you’re more likely to achieve greater levels of well-being and increase your Quality of Lifespan.

Higher purpose in life predicts a host of positive health and well-being outcomes. But the mechanisms that underlie this link remain unclear. One possibility involves reduced activity in areas of the brain that process conflict-related information. Researchers tested this idea with 220 sedentary and overweight or obese young adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains.

While connected to the fMRI apparatus, participants viewed and listened to three types of health-related messages relevant to being sedentary: a) “risk” messages of health problems, b) “why” messages of becoming more active, and c) “how” messages of developing exercise habits. Individuals with higher as opposed to lower purpose in life showed lower activity in brain areas associated with conflict-related processing. Participants with higher purpose in life were significantly more likely to endorse the self-relevance of the “how” and the “why” messages but not the “risk” messages. Thus, a higher purpose in life may alter brain function and predispose purposeful people to accept health messages (such as why exercise is beneficial) that might conflict with their current sedentary condition.

Higher purpose in life predicts lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slower cognitive decline in older persons. Researchers autopsied the brains of 246 older persons who participated in the Rush Memory and Aging Project in Chicago to understand possible underlying mechanisms. Purpose in life did not directly predict a global measure of Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Purpose in life did, however, affect the link between global measures of Alzheimer’s disease pathology and cognition. Participants who reported higher purpose in life had better cognitive function in spite of Alzheimer’s disease pathologies. Purpose in life also moderated the relationship between neurofibrillary tangles (a type of brain pathology related to Alzheimer’s disease) and cognition. Finally, high purpose in life predicted slower decline in global cognitive function over a 10-year period, especially for those with a high burden of Alzheimer’s disease pathologies. The take-home message: Live with purpose and you brain may work better.

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