June 16, 2019


Have you ever met someone who just makes it all look easy? They seem to be able to get to the gym, work hard and get their goals. They love the healthy foods that we might find difficult to eat and they just ease through all of it. According to a new study from the communication neuroscience Lab in Annenberg School, people with stronger life purposes are basically able to accept messages that promotes them having a good life, a healthy life, a fulfilling life. People with a weaker life purpose seem to find it more difficult as this may be linked towards them experiencing less decisional conflict while considering health advice.


"Purpose in life has been robustly associated with health in previous studies," says postdoctoral fellow Yoona Kang, lead author of the study, "but the mechanism through which life purpose may promote healthy living has been unclear."


For this study, published in Health Psychology, Kang and her co-authors chose to test out a theory: that making health decisions might take less effort for those with higher sense of purpose in life. According to Kang, health decisions, even those as simple and mundane as choosing between the elevator and the stairs, involve some amount of decisional conflict. But what if some people experience less conflict than others when considering these options, perhaps because they have a stronger guiding purpose that helps resolve the conflicts?


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In order to test this idea, the researchers of this study got together a variety of people who needed to exercise more. They actually went out of actively searched for people who were overweight or even obese for the most accurate results. They completed a survey about their life purpose by indicating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life" or "I don't have a good sense of what it is I'm trying to accomplish in life." Next, they were shown health messages promoting physical activity. Their responses to the messages were monitored by an fMRI scanner, focusing on brain regions that tend to be active when people aren't sure what to choose or when they feel conflicted.


The people who marked better in having a stronger sense of purpose in their lives were more willing to accept and agree to health messages that were placed upon them. Especially people who were either trying for families, had families or found someone who made them happy. The people who seemed to have a lower life purpose sense allowed the conflicting side of their brain to be more predominant in this case and more willing to just brush off the entire idea that they could get the weight off or even acknowledge some of the content that was placed in front of them regarding a healthier lifestyle.


"We conduct studies both to understand how different kinds of health messaging can help transform people's behaviours and why some people might be more susceptible than others," says Emily Falk, director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab. "This study does a nice job starting to unpack reasons why people who have a higher sense of purpose in life might be more able to take advantage of this messaging when they encounter it."

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