Contact: Eric Kim, PhD
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People who find abundant purpose in their lives are much less likely than those who feel little purpose to start using illegal drugs or misusing medication, suggests a pioneering new study. Having a strong sense of purpose has been linked to better health and longer life in past research. Now the first large, long-term study on life purpose and drug misuse following adults of varied ages finds that the more purpose adults feel, the less likely they are to start misusing drugs.
And drug misuse is no small problem: About 28.6 million people in the U.S. alone used illegal drugs or misused medicine in the last 30 days. These actions can hinder mental and physical health, raising health care costs, and increase crime, car accidents and child abuse and neglect, according to a recent Surgeon General’s report.
The new study on purpose in life appears in the September issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Participants included 3,535 U.S. adults 25 to 74 years old at the start, a nationally representative sample that was part of a larger database. Everyone filled out a detailed questionnaire at the outset to establish how strong a purpose they felt in living. They also were asked if in the last 12 months they had used varied illicit drugs or used medicines without a prescription or in larger amounts or for a longer time than prescribed. Those who said they were misusing drugs were excluded, which left 3,535 adults. The researchers also had gathered demographic facts about the participants, along with health, mental health and health behavior information.
Then the follow-up nine to 10 years later checked to see which of these adults were either using illicit drugs or misusing medicines. The researchers controlled for other factors at the start that might affect drug use, such as age, health, health behaviors (smoking, drinking alcohol) and psychological distress. The findings were interesting to see, reports study leader Eric Kim, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia:
** Adults who earlier at baseline had scored in the top quarter for purpose in life were about 50% less likely than those in the bottom quarter to be using illegal drugs or misusing medicines.
** The greater the sense of purpose someone expressed at the outset, the less likely they were to be misusing drugs nine to 10 years later.
Why would finding purpose in your life lead to less drug misuse? While the study could not pinpoint specific causes, there’s mounting evidence that adults with strong purpose are less impulsive, handle life stress better without negative moods or physical symptoms, and have higher pain tolerance than peers who find little purpose in their lives, says Kim. They also generally have less risk for suffering from psychological conditions such as depression and physical maladies such as cardiovascular disease, both of which boost the odds of future drug misuse.
This is still a frontier area of inquiry, Kim emphasizes. More research is needed on how purpose in life might affect drug usage. “But if this finding holds up in future studies, a screening for life purpose could possibly be used in doctors’ offices to identify those who may be vulnerable to future drug misuse. Depression screening is already pretty widely used by doctors, and this could add even more information to these existing screenings.”
There is also some early evidence that adults’ sense of purpose actually can be increased, Kim notes, specifically through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and volunteering programs. “We need more research on precisely how purpose in life can be increased,” he adds, “because that would not only help people reach an important endpoint that is valued itself, purpose in life, but boosting people’s sense of purpose might also lead to a variety of other positive outcomes.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”