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The Surprising Ingredient of Good Health

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 8 August 2014
Tree roots

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Think of a goal that you left unmet without too much regret. Now think of one you have pursued tirelessly, despite obstacles, adversities, and situational challenges. What was the difference between these two goals?

I don’t know you, and I don’t know your story, but I’m ready to bet that goal #2 had a lot more meaning for you than goal #1.

Purpose as a Driver of Action

Over the years, I have interviewed numerous individuals who have done what 95% of the population can’t do: they lost a significant amount of weight and, against all odds, kept it off. “What was your motivation?” I ask. The answer is never about fitting in, looking good, or feeling sexy. It’s always about having the energy to play with kids or grandchildren, living longer to be around for their loved ones, or seeing the value of life after being scared of losing it all to a heart attack after doing something as simple as going up a flight of stairs or tying a shoe.

Purpose is a huge driver of the way we think, respond, and feel. It motivates us to accomplish feats we’d never consider otherwise. While it used to be deemed a overly soft topic for C-suite conversation up until a few years ago, today an increasing number of executives are turning their attention towards its importance and cultivation.

If you are trying to help yourself or anyone else improve health, what role have you given to having a purpose in life? Whether you are a coach working with individuals looking to get in shape, a work site wellness coordinator looking to get participants engaged, a parent trying to teach lifestyle hygiene to your kids or a good friend, including purpose will lead to the outcomes most other techniques fail to generate.

Recently, I shared insights concerning how a purposeful why contributes to employee participation in a wellness offering, and why the whole topic of how we think and feel shouldn’t be relegated to the employee assistance program. This week, I’d like to share the broad lines of a conversation I’ve shared with Victor Strecher, PhD and Professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan, on the health benefits of leading a purposeful life.

Disease Prevention

According to Strecher, various studies show that the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to cultivate a sense of intentionality protects against Alzheimer’s and stroke, and it may extend to other diseases as well. “The basic idea is that it somehow provides functional resilience in the face of multiple diseases,” says Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist whose primary interest is the prevention of age-related cognitive and functional decline.

Looking at the Blue Zones, the six or seven areas around the world with the highest percentage of centenarians ever recorded in history, that general resilience to disease comes to life. Not only do these centenarians achieve remarkable longevity, but they also enjoy an enviable vitality with high energy and a striking absence of disease. Having a higher sense of purpose is one of nine things they do differently.



Improve Habits

There is evidence that finding meaning is associated with reduced cortisol. High cortisol is associated with insomnia, high-sugar high-fat food cravings, and feelings of irritability and impatience. In our book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, Kathryn and I show that reducing cortisol helps improve sleep, food, and mood habits, which in turn benefit exercise intentions and implementations.

But there is more, according to Strecher. “In a study of 154 participants with cocaine dependence (yes, he’s tackling the 400-lb gorilla here), purpose in life predicted ability to avoid relapse to any use of cocaine and alcohol in the 6 months after treatment.” Wow!

Increase Longevity

The example of the centenarians living in the Blue Zones illustrates that having a sense of purpose can benefit our longevity. That can mean up to 7 years of extra life expectancy, according to their research. We also know that better habits and decreased substance abuse lead to a longer life. “Do you have more evidence?” I asked Strecher.

His answer was affirmative. “In a study of 1361 older adults, participants with a strong sense of purpose were less likely to die over the study follow-up period than those who did not have a strong sense of purpose. And while we don’t have exact statistics on it, purpose may also be a predictor of survival under dire circumstances. Viktor Frankl explained that in the concentration camps of World War II, as long as the detainees could find meaning in their situation, they could also find ways to hold on and preserve their lives. But loss of purpose led to a certain death.” Ouch!

Asking Why

“Why?” is a question most people don’t like because it often makes us feel defensive. Coaches are trained to ask other kinds of questions, turning “Why did you do this?” into “How well did this serve you?” But we shouldn’t shy away from why altogether. As it turns out, our why is very relevant when it comes to health improvement.

Strecher summarizes it well. “What’s the point of high energy and living a long time if we think life sucks? When we have purpose, we want to be at our best so we can better serve that purpose. Purpose is akin to the root system of a tree, grounding and feeding the whole organism so it can flourish and thrive, no matter what the exterior conditions are.”

Tweetable to share: “Can purpose in life reduce the effects of poor food and exercise habits?” via @gotsas, #healthyliving



Boyle, P.A. et al (2012). Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 69(5): 499-506

Buettner D. (2008). The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Costandi, M. (2014). A purposeful life is a healthier life. Dana Foundation.

Cruess D. G., Antoni, M. H., McGregor, B. A., Kilbourn, K. M., Boyers, A. E., Alferi, S. M., Carver, C. S., & Kumar, M. (2000). Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management Reduces Serum Cortisol by Enhancing Benefit Finding Among Women Being Treated for Early Stage Breast Cancer. Psychosomatic Medicine. 62: 304-308.

Johnson, S., Paiva, A., Cummins, C., et al. (2007). Transtheoretical Model-based Multiple Behavior Intervention for Weight Management: Effectiveness on a population basis. Preventive Medicine. Abstract.

Kim, E.S., Sun, J.K., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2013). Purpose in life and reduced incidence of stroke in older adults: The health and retirement study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74, 427-432.

Kim, E.S., Sun, J. K., Park, N., Kubzansky, L. D., & Peterson, C. (2012). Purpose in life and reduced risk of myocardial infarction among older U.S. adults with coronary heart disease: A two-year follow-up. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Abstract.

Krause, N. (2009). Meaning in Life and Mortality. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 64B(4), 517–527. Abstract.

Martin, R. A., MacKinnon, S., Johnson, J., Rohsenow, D. J. (2011). Purpose in life predicts treatment outcome among adult cocaine abusers in treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 40, 183–188.

Neighmond, P. (2014). People Who Feel They Have a Purpose in Life Live Longer. National Public Radio.

Ryff, C.D., Singer, B.H., Love, D.G. (2004). Positive health: connecting well-being with biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 359, 1383-1394.

Shaar, M.-J. (2014). Health promotion or make-believe: Which are you working on? Smarts and Stamina Blog.

Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Strecher, V. J. (2013). On Purpose: Lessons in Life and Health From the Frog, Dung Beetle, and Julia. Dung Beetle Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Success or Failure? courtesy of StockMonkeys.com
Unusually visible tree roots courtesy of Martin LaBar

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Judy Krings 9 August 2014 - 7:01 am

Your focus on “Why’s” hit home for me, Marie-Josee. Too long have the “why questions” the bad boys of coaching/therapy. Yes, “What do you think/feel is going on here” might go down easier, but sometimes . “Why?” is a powerful question. Or, “Why do you suppose that is?” hits home, too. Often people will PAUSE to think/feel and get clarify.

Longevity. I enjoy that question, “If you don;t HAVE to work for moeny, would you?” and “Why?” Because it feel darn good to give back. I can feel those smiles now just thinking about this.

Great article and many thanks. “Why?” Because other people matter! Thank you Chris Peterson!

MJ 9 August 2014 - 8:23 am

Thanks for your comment, Judy! You are illustrating a different use of why than I am, and yours probably has more shock value than mine. But in both cases, why (when used appropriately) is a good way to generate new thinking – and really, that’s what we are both after. Cheers!

Judy Krings 9 August 2014 - 8:29 am

Diversity can be a nuanced fun delight.
Thanks ever so much, Marie-Josee!

Kavisha Patel 16 December 2015 - 12:20 am

Incredible post. Having a purpose in life is important to creating a life worth living. Its incredible how our mental health can have such a tremendous impact on our health. I feel like we get lost in the “superficial” reasons to live life – to earn money, buy a big house, get a degree etc. These superficial things rarely every provide us with longing happiness. Focusing on the deeper meaning of life is something that we lose sight of. Inspirational post!

Chiamaka Akumuo 17 December 2015 - 8:06 pm

This article was pretty thought provoking. Reading through,I thought of the goals that I actually do keep. Most of them do have deep meaning to me. A lot of the goals I complete have to do with my family or others around me. It is never really for a superficial reason. But the goals that are superficially based, I do not get past the third day!! I really liked the “Why” part. Asking why does make you face the music and let you know what is the real meaning for what you want.


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