For some people, it can be quite an effort to consistently reach for the healthy choice in any given scenario—going to bed at a decent hour instead of staying up late working or scrolling, picking the nutritious greens over the comforting carbs, taking the stairs over the elevator. For others, it can seem like the easiest thing in the world. Why?
A new study published in the Health Psychology journal suggests one surprising quality that might make these decisions easier: life purpose. People who have a greater sense of life purpose were more receptive to health advice, the study found.
The researchers recruited 220 people who currently have a pretty sedentary lifestyle and probably could afford to make some health-focused changes in their lives. They completed a survey asking them to rate how much they resonated with statements like “I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life” or “I don’t have a good sense of what it is I’m trying to accomplish in life.” Then they were shown various messages promoting physical activity while under an fMRI scanner so the researchers could observe what parts of their brains were being activated as they viewed and responded to the messages.
The folks with a greater sense of life purpose—that is, “a set of goals derived from an individual’s core values”—were more likely to agree with the messages. Based on the brain scans, this had to do with having less “decisional conflict” over deciding whether to accept the health advice. People with more life purpose had less brain activity in the regions involved with decision-making, weighing threats and potential rewards, and assessing conflicting information.
“Decisional conflict arises in part when people are unclear about their core values and goals. By contrast, one’s purpose in life is a function of goals associated with core values, providing clearer direction in an environment replete with choices and resulting conflict,” the researchers explain in the paper on their findings. “Goal clarification is considered a key initial step in decision-making. Thus, people with a higher sense of purpose may experience less decisional conflict from messages encouraging longer-term lifestyle changes.”
Think of it like this: When you have a clear sense of purpose in your life—something that drives you, that you want to see through, that you live for—it’s a lot easier for you to recognise and accept messages about your health because of how positive and beneficial they are to those goals.
“It is possible that participants who have stronger purpose in life are more open to suggestions for how to live a longer and healthier life. In other words, the broader ‘why’ provided by life purpose may provide intrinsic motivation and openness to accept skill- and information-based ‘how’ messages,” the researchers explain.
Whether you see your purpose as excelling at your job, serving the public through your work, seeing as much of this world as possible with your own two eyes, or taking care of your family and loved ones, having a clear sense of that larger goal makes it easier to see the importance of taking care of your health. After all, eating better, sleeping more, moving more, and caring for your mental state are all absolutely necessary to achieving your larger purpose.
So if you’re someone who tends to struggle with making healthy choices, it might be helpful to take some time to really think about what you’re in this world to do. Once you know, in those small moments when you need to make a decision between staying on the couch or hitting that yoga class, the call of your greater purpose can make your choice not just clear cut but a joyful one to follow through.