Sunday, August 3, 2014

Religion and the Benefits of a Sense of Purpose

Did you hear the NPR story about the benefits of feeling that your life has purpose?  A recent study has proved it.

I can almost hear your eyeballs rolling (yes, I mixed that sensory reference on purpose), those of you who hate NPR.  I can hear people sighing and saying, "Leave it to modern science to 'discover' something we all already knew."

But here's what struck me:  "In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s."

And yes, the study controlled for other factors like age and gender.

The reason why is not clear, and I'm sure we can all think of many possibilities.  Do people who have a sense of purpose actually have less stress or does stress affect them differently?  If we have a sense of purpose, do we make smarter decisions about food and exercise so that we'll have more time to fulfill that purpose?

And you might ask for a definition of purpose.  Here's what the story said, "Of course, purpose means different things to different people. Hill [one of the scientists who conducted the study] says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity."

I wondered about the spirituality angle.  Does our religion give us that sense of purpose?

We could argue that point fiercely, and my atheist friends would want to know if a false sense of purpose gives us the same protection.  I'd guess that if the believer doesn't think of the purpose as false, then the protection remains.

I would guess that an essential aspect of religion and spirituality is that sense of purpose.  The definition might change from religion to religion, from denomination to denomination.  Some churches are organized around issues of social justice, some around missionary support, some around the nourishment of individual spirits, some around charity work, some around the beauty of worship, some around preserving the work of ancestors . . . on and on I could go.

It's no surprise to me that having a sense of purpose is important.  The ability to quantify the benefits is intriguing, and I look forward to the follow up studies.

1 comment:

Danny Dowell said...

Thanks for your post.
I see a sense of purpose as fundamental to faith. I always like a quote by Bonhoeffer which sums up nicely what the church should be: "The Church is the Church only when it exists for others..." It is difficult to lack a purpose when we live for others.
That following God's ways are helpful to us isn't surprising. God always insists he has our best interest in mind, it is just that we often doubt God.