Does a sense of purpose improve one’s health?

Serving food at an aid center.


Recently several writers have attacked religious belief as a pernicious delusion [Dawkins2006; Dennett2006; Harris2006; Hitchens2007; Stenger2008]. Victor Stenger, for example, specifically rejects claims that there are any health or social benefits from religious beliefs or participation.

Other writers sharply disagree, noting benefits bestowed by religion throughout history in fostering social cohesion and moral training. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant (neither of whom were particularly religious) wrote that “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. … There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51]. And Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic who has criticized claims of religion and supernatural effects on numerous occasions, noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000, pg. 71]:

However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

Published studies

Other, more recent studies, by numerous scholars, have amply underscored benefits of a purposeful, charitable life, as has long been advocated by the world’s major religious movements. As a single example, two 2013 studies of Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S., conducted by researchers at Baylor University, found that adults who attend synagogue regularly, pray often, and otherwise consider themselves to be religious are significantly healthier, happier and report greater satisfaction with life, compared with other adults in the study [Levin2013].

Numerous other studies are mentioned at Benefits.

A sense of purpose

Closely related to religious belief is a “sense of purpose,” a worldview that extends beyond specific religious tenets or beliefs to include many of more secular mindset who nonetheless have a well-defined set of personal life objectives.

A 2017 survey of existing studies found numerous specific health benefits to persons who have a clear sense of personal purpose [Burrell2017]:

  • In a 2014 analysis of 7000 middle-aged persons in the U.S., even small increases in a “sense of purpose” were associated with large decreases in the risk of dying over a 14-year period.
  • A separate 2014 study of 9000 British persons over 50 found that those who scored in the highest 25% in an assessment of “purpose” had a 30% lower risk of death over a ten-year period.
  • Other studies have found that a higher sense of purpose cuts heart disease risk by 27%, stroke risk by 22% and Alzheimer’s disease risk by 50%.
  • A 2013 study distinguished two types of well-being: (a) hedonic well-being, specifically a measure of how often one feels happy, and (b) eudaemonic well-being, specifically a measure of how one’s life has a sense of direction. Although both measures correlated with lower levels of depression, persons with higher hedonic well-being had higher expressions of inflammatory genes and lower expression of disease-fighting antibodies. For those scoring higher on eudaemonia, the results were opposite.

With regards to the 2013 results mentioned above on eudaemonic well-being, related research has found that eudaemonic well-being is strengthened by performing “random acts of kindness.” Others suggest that a focus on making work more meaningful and more invested in relationships could strengthen these beneficial effects.

Helping one another

Other studies have found similar results. In an April 2013 New York Times column, Stanford scholar Tanya M. Luhrmann summarized some of these results, and then added her own observations. In evangelical churches she has studied as an anthropologist, she found that people really do look out for one another, showing up with dinner when friends are sick, or simply talking with them when they are unhappy. They are relatively more generous, often in private contributions, when others are in need. She mentioned that when one member of an evangelical group cried at needing a $1500 dental procedure, yet had no money, her friends, many of whom were students with very limited funds, covered the cost by anonymous donations [Luhrmann2013].

Luhrmann argues that any faith which demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable, as something that is good, may well transfer to other aspects of life. For example, she observed that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were mentally healthier (as measured by a standardized psychiatric scale), and this may lead to better overall physical health as well [Luhrmann2013].

Along this line, researchers have found that grandparents who care for their grandchildren on average live longer than grandparents who do not, based on an analysis of over 500 people aged between 70 and 103 years. The researchers were also able to show that this positive effect of caregiving on mortality was not limited to help and caregiving within the family [SD2016c].


In summary, contrary to claims of some, there are real and measurable benefits to living a principled, purposeful, charitable life, along the lines of what has been advocated by the world’s great religions for centuries. These benefits have been documented in study after study over many years. There is no suggestion in this data of supernatural effects, but the natural effects are real enough!

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