Word-Of-the-Week #861: Meaning

February 4, 2021 by  

Meaning – a sense of importance or purpose. 

Does your work feel important to you? Do you feel a sense of purpose in your life? How important is being healthy to you?

This week features excerpts from The Meaning of Life. Scientific and cultural studies show that a sense of purpose increases odds of good health and longevity” by Marta Zaraska

“Americans dream of living long. In a survey done by Stanford Center on Longevity several years ago, 77 percent said they’d like to make it to 100. 

And so we diet, count steps, pop supplements and hope for miracle immortality treatments. Yet although diet and exercise are certainly vital for health (some supplements may actually harm your centenarian potential), science shows there is another longevity ingredient we often overlook: finding purpose. 

  • Research reveals that people who believe their existence has meaning have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and more favorable gene expression related to inflammation. If a 90-year-old with a clear purpose in life develops Alzheimer’s disease, that person will probably keep functioning relatively well despite real pathological changes in the brain, one study found. Another meta-analysis of 10 studies involving more than 136,000 people found that having purpose in life can lower your mortality risk by about 17 percent — about as much as following the famed Mediterranean diet. 

Two years ago when researching my new book, “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100,” I talked to scientists and centenarians in Japan about the reason behind their nation’s exceptional longevity — life expectancy at birth in that country stands at 84.2 years, almost six years longer than in the United States. While similar interviews I’ve conducted in the West tended to center on diet and exercise, in Japan the conversations quickly moved to ikigai, which is often translated as “purpose in life” or “life worth living.” 

Ikigai is seen as having such measurable effects on longevity that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has included it in the official health promotion strategy. In one epidemiological study conducted on over 43,000 Japanese, not having ikigai was linked to a 60 percent higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. That’s a lot. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables per day can cut the danger of succumbing to cardiovascular disease by “just” 27 percent. Elderly Japanese I interviewed talked about ikigai as “taking care of grandchildren,” “volunteering,” “keeping their street clean and pretty.” 

Research has shown that people who have high levels of purpose in life spend fewer nights in hospitals, have lower odds of developing diabetes, and over two times lower risk of dying from heart conditions than do others.

  • Unfortunately, searching for, or having, purpose in life isn’t as straightforward as popping dietary supplements, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 out of 10 Americans haven’t yet managed to find it. 

The good news is that it’s possible to boost our sense of meaning and purpose through simple interventions, such as volunteering. “People do increase their sense of compassion and really do get new world views as they volunteer, that might actually help make the soul warmer,” Kim says. He thinks mindfulness or joining a group of people who share your values could also help you find meaning. Such interventions haven’t been yet tested in research, however.

 Although volunteering or joining a club might be difficult during a pandemic, history teaches us that tough times may offer unique opportunity for finding purpose. According to an analysis of words used in historical collections of written text, French people haven’t been as happy since the end of World War II as they were during the war. The same analysis suggested Britons seemed to be less happy in the 1980s than in the 1940s. 

  • There are some indications that Americans and Europeans alike may be engaging in more purpose-creating behaviors during this pandemic than they did before covid-19 hit. News accounts say charity donations are up both in the United States and Britain. According to a study done by IPSOS, almost half of Americans checked in on elderly or sick neighbors when the pandemic began, while 20 percent potentially exposed themselves to the virus to help other people. 

In one Irish survey, 57 percent of those responding said they were now reevaluating their lives. During the spring lockdown in France, where I live, as in many cities and towns around the world, we clapped and banged on pots to cheer for doctors and nurses for 52 days straight, rain or shine. It made us feel connected, purposeful. Maybe we personally couldn’t help save patients, but at least we could provide support for those who did. 

If we keep such things going, if we find purpose and meaning in the current gloom, we may end up not just happier but healthier and longer-lived — and perhaps more resilient in the face of covid-19 stress, too.”

This week’s focus is finding meaning. Have you engaged in more purpose-creating behaviors during this pandemic? Do you have a social network that shares your same interests? How important is it to live a long life?

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