Meaning and Purpose Improve Health and Happiness

You can be happier and healthier by increasing meaning and purpose. The terms meaning and purpose often appear together. For our discussion here, I would frame them this way: acting with purpose refers to taking any action that is of sufficient importance that it gives our lives meaning. 

In writing about his forty years of working with metastatic cancer patients in Cancer as a Turning Point, Dr. Lawrence LeShan

Pioneer psychooncologist Lawrence LeShan, PhD

noted that the ones who discovered and then pursued what could give their lives meaning and purpose had much higher remission rates than those who did not. He found that those who had something to live for actually had considerably higher rates of survival than those who did not.

LeShan discovered that he could restore people’s will to live by helping them identify something in their lives that they were willing to fight for—as if their survival depended on it. In fact, in the 1950s, when he switched from traditional Freudian psychotherapy to his own method, the mortality rates of his advanced, metastatic, end-stage, hospitalized cancer patients went from 100 percent (as would be expected) to 50 percent. What this means is that the other half went into long-term remission from the end-stage cancer that had been predicted to kill them. In some cases they lived a year beyond what had been expected and in other cases they lived ten to twenty years or more beyond the date that the oncologists expected them to die. The common variable in all those cases of remission was a newly discovered sense of meaning and purpose. Sometimes this change of heart was the result of taking up a musical instrument that they’d always dreamed of playing. Other times, it came from finding a way to help make life better for others or finding meaningful work.

There are no guarantees and despite making significant changes in their lives, many of the people Dr. LeShan worked with still died. But they lived much more fully in whatever time they had remaining, and even their dying process usually became a meaningful experience.

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