Meaning and Health
Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. Henry Biller is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Rhode Island. Their new book, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, is a look at how we can be happy and healthy in a world filled with economic collapse, natural disasters, poverty, and the constant threat of terrorism. In this excerpt, they look at how finding meaning can positively affect your health.
What is meaning in life? Many lengthy philosophical essays have been written on this topic, but one of the most compelling descriptions can be found in a pithy five-page article written by philosopher Robert Baird. In Meaning in Life: Created or Discovered, Baird reduced the meaning-making process to three essential life tasks: cultivating depth and quality in your relationships, committing yourself to projects and goals, and fashioning stories that place your life in an ultimate context. Note that, once again, the big things in life come down to attachment, mastery, and survival, or in other words, hope. Perhaps this is why theologian Emil Brunner proclaimed: “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.”
Meaning in life is both a destination and a vehicle. As a destination, a meaningful life can be viewed as a desired end state or goal: every human being has a need to lead a life that makes sense to him or her on a personal level. As a vehicle, meaning making can pave the way to better health: being fully engaged in the flow of life and having a deep sense of purpose can make you more resistant to illness and extend your life. In both senses, the personal meaning in one’s life, like a potentially effective exercise program, usually requires some adjustment if it is to be sustained over time, and for many, that adjustment includes the incorporation of established traditions such as religious faith. But regardless, the meaning that one finds in life supports health because it solidifies hope.
Meaning as a health destination. Meaning is hardly a luxury item for a social animal endowed with prominent frontal lobes and a keen sense of future survival. Meaning is basic to human life. No amount of money or power can take its place. If these earthly gains sufficed, we would never see many of those who have them in spades destroy themselves with drugs, eating disorders, or other self-destructive behaviors. Horace Greeley put it well, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident . . . riches take wings.”
Meaning as a vehicle to better health. Individuals infused with meaning are well anchored. They have strong relationships, a potent sense of mastery, and an unwavering sense of purpose. In short, they are brimming with hope. What are the health benefits of such deep centeredness? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed that those of his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz who were able to sustain some sense of purpose were less likely to succumb to illness. More than even food or medical care, a meaning-oriented outlook preserved the immune systems of these survivors.
Psychologist Carol Ryff has been among those who believe that meaning and purpose in life reduces allostatic load, the wear and tear of biological reactivity to stress. To the extent that spiritual beliefs impart meaning, this may be why high religious involvement tends to be associated with fewer cardiovascular crises and greater longevity. In a sense, the meaning-centered individual is less likely to be tossed adrift by what Shakespeare dubbed the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Ryff and her colleagues tested the meaning hypothesis by studying 134 women, ages 61 to 91. They assessed both hedonic (joy and happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (meaning and purpose). Greater meaning and purpose, rather than more joy and happiness, emerged as the better health predictor. Specifically, those who reported greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines as well as higher levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol). They also had a healthier body mass index.
The ability to derive meaning is also important for those already diagnosed with a serious illness. Denise Bowes of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and her colleagues conducted detailed interviews of nine women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “Hope” and “finding meaning” were the two most important factors that determined perceived well-being. As one woman put it, “If you don’t have hope, then you don’t have anything really.”
The role of meaning as an illness buffer seems to be especially important for older individuals. One of us (A. S.), in collaboration with psychologist David McClelland, explored the impact of derived meaning, chronic illness, and age on reported morale in 80 younger (25 to 40) and 80 older (65 to 80) adults. The findings were fascinating. Older individuals were better able to derive meaning from experiences with illness than their younger counterparts. In addition, despite reporting twice as many chronic illnesses as the younger group, the older adults had significantly higher levels of morale. What accounted for this surprising finding? It appeared to be derived meaning. Among older adults, meaning was the strongest predictor of morale, exceeding by a factor of ten to one both the importance of age and the number or severity of chronic illnesses.