Caregiver Holding Senior's Hand

An aspect of health that gets little airplay is the eighth pillar of health, which is fun and purpose. This is doing things, which we enjoy but which also serve a purpose and in some way benefit others. It can be as simple as tending a garden or can be running a business. The key points being that when we are aligned with what matters to us we enjoy what we do and we also are able to assist others.

There was an interesting article in a recent Time magazine about the therapeutic value of service. There are a number of groups, which have worked with ex servicemen getting them involved in community work. One in particular is called the Mission Continues and its principle is that it gives an ongoing sense of purpose to returned veterans.

To quote Time it is “… at the heart of a growing community service activism among this generation of combat veterans”. They get involved with building houses, working in healthcare, teaching, counselling and farming to name a few.

What has been interesting is that the health of some of these people has improved as they have become involved in work with a purpose. In fact some with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have shown improvement in their symptoms. Some 64% of a group studied for the effects of the program had PTSD leading one of the researchers to ponder whether service may be a potential treatment for PTSD.

Essentially what the researchers discovered was that people who joined the armed forces generally had a desire to serve their country and fellow man. When the service ended there was a hole in the lives of many. This contributed to problems such as alcohol consumption, over eating and mental health problems. Providing them with a new purpose gave their lives literally a new purpose. In many cases their health improved significantly.

No doubt more study will be done on this and it is a fascinating area. But we do not need years of research to tell us that having a purpose is important to human beings. This is separate to whether it helps specific health problems like PTSD.

Work out of Korea has shown that post menopausal women who were still working had a 34% lower rate of metabolic syndrome (a  precursor to diabetes and possibly heart disease) compared to those who were unemployed. I would suggest that the issue of paid activity is less critical than the fact that they are doing something. In other words I feel a similar effect would be shown in women (and men) doing unpaid work or pursuing something with a purpose.

In a similar vein French research has shown that later retirement is correlated with lower rates of dementia. Now correlation does not equal causation. However we know that one of the ways to reduce the likelihood of dementia is to keep the brain active. Things like crosswords or learning new tasks fit into this. So it is not a surprise that working longer has a similar effect. Most jobs require some thought and hence keep the mind active. Once again I suspect the paid element is not the key so volunteer work or pursuing other tasks or goals would have a similar effect.

For all of us, we feel good when we feel that what we do matters. This may be raising a family, doing a job, running a business, playing music, inventing, creating art or volunteering to name a few. It can be for money or it can be voluntary. It may make a difference to one another or to thousands.

Even though we are human beings, not human doings, what we do matters both to us and to those around us. The findings amongst US veterans are showing us what deep down we all know. To have a purpose in life is to have a meaningful life.

In turn our wellbeing is enhanced.