Study: Finding Meaning & Purpose In Life Essential To Physical, Mental Well-Being

SAN DIEGO — Famed psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl developed an approach to psychotherapy called logotherapy (logos is Greek for reason), in which patients are encouraged to find meaning and purpose in their lives as a means to attaining well-being. Frankl is perhaps best known for his harrowing descriptions of day-to-day life in nazi concentration camps, and his almost poetic explanation that even then, in the absolute worst living conditions imaginable, he and his fellow prisoners were able to hold on to their humanity through finding purpose in their torment. Now, a new study is further validating Frankl’s ideas. Researchers from UC San Diego say that not only is purpose in life integral to mental well-being, but it is also important in regards to physical health and cognitive functioning.

Age plays a role in this equation as well, with the research team finding that the presence of meaning in life often takes on an “inverted U-shaped relationship.” Essentially this means that most people search and strive for meaning in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, before becoming content with what it all meant around the age of 60. However, past that age, people tend to begin searching once more.

“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life,” explains senior author Dr. Dilip V. Jeste in a release. “As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.”

“After age 60, things begin to change. People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away,” He continues. “They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”

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Overall, Dr. Jeste says his research indicates that people, no matter what age, are much happier and healthier with a sense of purpose in their lives, especially in comparison to others who feel aimless. Interestingly, the search for meaning, if fruitless, was found to be connected to worse mental well-being and cognition.

“When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don’t have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out,” Dr. Jeste comments.

The research encompassed 1,042 adults of various ages, over the course of three years. Each participant’s personal experiences with meaning and purpose were measured via interviews and surveys. Individuals were asked to indicate how strongly the agreed with statements like, “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

“The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance the well-being and functioning of patients,” adds first author Dr. Awais Aftab. “We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose.”

Moving forward, Dr. Jeste says he would like to investigate how other factors, such as loneliness, wisdom, and compassion, influence meaning in life.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

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