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Having a Purpose in Life May Be Protective Against Exposure to Life’s Unpleasantness
November 15, 2013

Image by hangul via iStockPhoto

One’s purpose in life or the ability to find meaning from life’s experiences – especially when confronting life’s challenges – may promote better emotion regulation, according to a new study conducted by the Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) at the Waisman Center, in collaboration with the Institute on Aging, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The results of the study, led by Assistant Scientist Stacey M. Schaefer, were recently published in the scientific journal PLoS One.

In the study, well-being was defined by a person’s self-reported ability to act independently, manage his or her surroundings, achieve personal growth, have positive relationships with others, positively accept themselves, and find purpose and meaning in life. The latter facet of well-being was of primary interest given a growing body of literature suggesting the degree to which a person feels he or she has purpose in life is predictive of better health and life longevity.

As part of the Midlife in the US Longitudinal Study of Health and Well-Being (MIDUS), a large sample of adults ranging from 36-84 years old were brought into the laboratory to view unpleasant, neutral and pleasant pictures while their psychophysiological responses were recorded. Their purpose in life was measured 2.5 years prior to their laboratory recordings.

Those who reported higher levels of meaning and purpose showed improved emotional recovery following exposure to negative pictures as indicated by the magnitude of eye blinks in response to a startle probe (loud burst of white noise) shortly after the pictures’ offset. Purpose in life predicted better recovery, defined as smaller eye blink response after negative picture offset, after controlling for age, gender, how much positive and negative emotion people generally feel, and other aspects of psychological well-being.

“Our eye blinks are emotion-modulated; this means that such responses to a startle probe are bigger when people are feeling more negative in the presence of negative stimuli. We found that those with greater purpose in life showed smaller eye blinks after exposure to negative stimuli,” says Schaefer, who has advanced degrees in psychology and whose primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of how a person’s ability to regulate his or her emotions interacts with his or her cognitive ability, ability to self-regulate other behaviors, health and well-being.

"Our study’s overall goal is to look at how people process emotion and see how these patterns relate to health and well-being."

Stacey Schaefer

Schaefer and the scientists at the Center predicted that those who reported having a greater purpose in life would experience a faster emotional recovery from the negative stimuli than those who reported having little purpose in life. The scientists measured psychological well-being by having participants rank how much they agree or disagree with statements such as, “I’m not so sure that my life adds up to much,” “I find it satisfying to think about what I have accomplished in life,” and “My aims in life have been more a source of satisfaction than frustration to me."

“Our study’s overall goal is to look at how people process emotion and see how these patterns relate to health and well-being,” says Schaefer. They cite findings from other recent studies showing that people’s self-reported purpose in life predict future health and mortality. Those with higher purpose in life have lower cardiovascular risk, lower risk of depression, lower weight and healthier cholesterol levels. In fact, “People are more likely to be mobile when they get older, less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and even less likely to die if they have higher levels of purpose in life. It appears to be a protective or resilience factor,” says Schaefer.

The results from the current study provide objective evidence that having purpose in life may afford protection from negative events through enhanced emotion regulation and suggest over repeated exposure to negative events and stressors, purpose in life may improve resilience resulting in better health and greater longevity.

In addition to Schaefer and Richard Davidson, authors of the paper include Jennifer Morozink Boylan, Carien M. van Reekum, Regina C. Lapate, Catherine J. Norris, and Carol D. Ryff. The full study is published and can be found on PLOS ONE's website.

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