There are a handful of junctures in life when a person’s sense of purpose is prone to twinkle and fade. In unemployment or professional stagnation; in financial or romantic straits, or after the death of a loved one; and, predictably, in retirement. To that point, the program Experience Corps seems to have stumbled into an elegant solution. For the past decade, the nonprofit has paired people ages 55 and older with students in kindergarten through third grade who need academic help. Across 19 U.S. cities, volunteers have taken up literacy coaching and proven that in their spare time they can significantly increase students’ test scores and morale. Which is great, of course. But the unexpected side effect of the programs was that the adults experienced significant health improvements, both mental and physical. The tutors’ rates of depression fell; and their physical mobility, stamina, and flexibility increased. They also showed improvements in executive functioning and memory.
One of the drivers of those health benefits, according to Eric Kim, a doctoral candidate examining the intersection of social connection and physical health at the University of Michigan, is that the tutors developed a renewed sense of purpose in their lives. In research published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kim and colleagues found that people with greater senses of purpose in life were more likely to embrace preventive healthcare: things like mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, and flu shots. In the study, people rated their own sense of purpose on a multidimensional questionnaire that included incisive prompts like, "I sometimes feel I've done all there is to do in my life" and "I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality." Even after the researchers accounted for socioeconomic factors that predict a person’s likelihood of getting preventive care, people with purpose in their lives were clearly more engaged in their own health.