My favorite medical diagnosis is “failure to thrive.”
Not because patients are failing to thrive — that part makes me sad. But because of the diagnosis’s bold proposition: Humans, in their natural state, are meant to thrive.
My patient, however, was not in his natural state. Cancer had claimed nearly every organ in his body. He’d lost a quarter of his body mass. I worried his ribs would crack under the weight of my stethoscope.
“You know,” he told me the evening I admitted him. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have cared if I made it. ‘Take me God,’ I would’ve said. ‘What good am I doing here anyway?’ But now you have to save me. Sadie needs me.”
He’d struggled with depression most of his life, he said. Strangely enough, it seemed to him, he was most at peace while caring for his mother when she had Parkinson’s, but she died years ago. Since then, he had felt aimless, without a sense of purpose, until Sadie wandered into his life.
Sadie was his cat.
Only about a quarter of Americans strongly endorse having a clear sense of purpose and of what makes their lives meaningful, while nearly 40 percent either feel neutral or say they don’t. This is both a social and a public health problem: Research increasingly suggests that purpose is important for a meaningful life — but also for a healthy life.
Purpose and meaning are connected to what researchers call eudaimonic well-being. This is distinct from, and sometimes inversely related to, happiness (hedonic well-being). One constitutes a deeper, more durable state, while the other is superficial and transient.
Being a pediatric oncologist, for example, is not a “happy” job, but it may be a very rewarding one. Raising a family can be profoundly meaningful, but parents are often less happy while interacting with their children than exercising or watching television.
Having purpose is linked to a number of positive health outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death. Those with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to embrace preventive health services, like mammograms, colonoscopies and flu shots.
And people with high scores on measures of eudaimonic well-being have low levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression; those with high scores on hedonic pleasure have just the opposite.
Doing good, it seems, is better than feeling good.
One study analyzed how having purpose influences one’s risk of dementia. Researchers assessed baseline levels of purpose for 951 individuals without dementia, then followed them for seven years, controlling for things like depression, neuroticism, socioeconomic status and chronic disease. Those who had expressed a greater sense of purpose were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and were far less likely to develop even minor cognitive problems.
Another study followed more than 6,000 individuals over 14 years and found that those with greater purpose were 15 percent less likely to die than those who were aimless, and that having purpose was protective across the life span — for people in their 20s as well as those in their 70s.
Helping other people can also be a way to help oneself.
Having purpose is not a fixed trait, but rather a modifiable state: Purpose can be honed through strategies that help us engage in meaningful activities and behaviors. This has implications at both the dinner table and the hospital bed.
Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/upsh ... y-one.html