Purpose in Life and Spirituality: The Neurobiology of Resilience (Part 4)

sharma-obesity-meditation1Following our discussion of the importance of attachments and experiencing positive emotions in the development of resilience, we now turn to the importance of having a purpose in life, the third factor discussed in the paper by Bart Rutten and colleagues from Maastricht University, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

As one may expect, experiencing a sense of meaning and purpose in life goes a long way in promoting resilience.

“A sense of life purpose may literally keep us alive. Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist, developed a theory predicting the survival chances of his inmates by observing their capacity to find meaning in their current situation. Frankl proposed that any situation can be one in which people find meaning and life purpose, but that psychological problems occur when the search is not successful.”

In contrast, lack of purpose is associated with increased risk of suicidal ideation.

This sense of purpose, which overlaps conceptually with the “Sense of Coherence” measures the extent to which

i) people feel that they understand the things that happen to them,

ii) the extent to which they see solutions to problems and

iii) the extent to which their daily life is a source of personal satisfaction.

Not surprisingly, purpose in life that emanates from religious and spiritual involvement, has also been associated with greater resilience. As the authors point out,

“There is some evidence for an association between spirituality and post-traumatic growth, which can possibly be explained by a well-succeeded search for meaning following trauma in highly spiritual individuals.”

“Thus, religious beliefs may provide a sense of meaning and purpose during difficult life circumstances. The conclusion that religion serves as a ‘pervasive and potentially effective method of coping for persons with mental illness’, warrants its integration into psychiatric and psychological practice.”

On the other hand,

“The current trend of secularization may go hand in hand with decreased population resilience to difficult periods. Therefore, it becomes important to focus on additional sources of sense of meaning and life purpose. Sense of meaning and life purpose is something very person specific and therefore different from behavioural patterns, for which therapists can provide concrete pieces of advice for modification.”

“However, indirectly, prolonged meditation or mindfulness training, in which people are trained to continuously focus their attention to the present moment, may result in increased awareness of meaning and purpose experienced in daily life situations.”

In neuroimaging studies,

“A state of prayer or sense of union with God or mankind was found to be associated with the activation of several brain areas, under which the left dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the caudate and the orbitofrontal cortex. These are areas that are also implicated in the brain reward system.”

Thus, the authors speculate that,

“Every time that people experience sense of meaning in their everyday lives they likely experience strong positive feelings. The continuous availability of internal rewards may make people less dependent on the short-lived external rewards in daily life and may thereby facilitate a healthy level of positive emotions also in the context of adversity.”

Purpose in life is of course also fostered by being in a positive social environment – family, peers, school, community – all can promote a positive outlook and nurture positive goals that will increase resilience.

Although some medical practitioners may feel that discussions with their patients about purpose in life may lie well beyond their scope of practice, we must certainly recognise that lack of purpose can significantly increase the risk for physical and mental problems in our patients.

Edmonton, AB

ResearchBlogging.orgRutten BP, Hammels C, Geschwind N, Menne-Lothmann C, Pishva E, Schruers K, van den Hove D, Kenis G, van Os J, & Wichers M (2013). Resilience in mental health: linking psychological and neurobiological perspectives. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica PMID: 23488807