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How a strong life purpose improves health

Today we want to explore a 2019 scientific paper on the connection between life purpose and health, titled: PURPOSE IN LIFE AND CONFLICT-RELATED NEURAL RESPONSES DURING HEALTH DECISION-MAKING.

First, the authors summarize the literature indicating that a strong sense of purpose in life, or a set of goals based on one’s core values, is associated with reduced risk of stroke, cardiovascular events, cognitive impairment, enhanced glucose metabolism and reduced mortality risk. Interestingly, a sense of purpose reduces the wear and tear on the body caused by stress, what’s called allostatic load. Research also shows that people with value-based goals and purpose engage more in healthy behaviors, including more exercise, and taking their medications as prescribed. Their health matters because it serves their pursuit of valued goals.

Why does a strong life purpose improve health? The processes underlying the link between health and purpose is unclear. The authors designed a study that sought to understand: Why are sedentary and overweight people with a stronger sense of purpose more receptive to health messages that explain the health benefits of physical activity?

Impact of decisional conflicts Often people who are living an unhealthy lifestyle, and are at high risk for adverse health events, are defensive or resistant to change because they deal with conflicting motivations – the desire for self-improvement and the desire to maintain self-worth by denying the value of the healthy behavior. They may seem indifferent to the healthy behavior in order to sustain a positive self-review, and don’t reveal their inner conflict. These inner conflicts can arise when people are unclear about their core values and goals, which bring clearer direction to one’s choices, reducing decisional conflict.

Brain activity in decisional conflicts In this study of 220 sedentary and overweight adults, the researchers tested whether those with a stronger life purpose were more likely to endorse positive health messages on physical activity. The participants listened to 30 messages (focused on risks, reasons, and strategies) and rated the degree that they agreed with the messages and were confident that they could do what the message recommended. While participants listened to the messages, the researchers used brain scans of multiple regions involved in neural processing of internal conflicts to learn whether the strong life purpose correlated with a lower level of activity in the brain regions involved in decisional conflict, a better test than self-reports of decisional conflict.

Study results The study showed that people with greater purpose showed less activity in the brain regions involved in conflict processing during health decision-making, which in turn predicted greater endorsement of self-relevant health advice. The effect of purpose in life was stronger when participants were exposed to “how” messages than “why” messages. The broader “why” provided by life purpose may provide motivation and openness to “how” messages. Greater purpose may reduce internal conflicts or negative self-protective responses to health messages.

What’s in it for coaches? The good news is that coaches apply science-based processes which helps clients connect with their values and develop visions and goals which are meaningful and purposeful, as taught in the Wellcoaches model. Now we know more about why the Wellcoaches tools helps people who are ambivalent about change.

The field of neuroscience has delivered an underpinning to Nietzsche’s assertion:

S/he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

How cool is that!

Coach Meg


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