The last hint provided by New Scientist for improving your own health is knowing your purpose:
In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. Over 40 per cent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 per cent of those judged to have little faith (In Vivo, vol 22, p 577). Are your hackles rising? Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.
There are thousands of studies purporting to show a link between some aspect of religion – such as attending church or praying – and better health. Religion has been associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, blood pressure and metabolic disorders, better immune functioning, improved outcomes for infections such as HIV and meningitis, and lower risk of developing cancer.
Critics of these studies, such as Richard Sloan of Columbia University Medical Center in New York, point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church. Nonetheless, a recent analysis of studies in the area concluded, after trying to control for these factors, that “religiosity/spirituality” does have a protective effect, though only in healthy people (Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, vol 78, p 81). The authors warned there might be a publication bias, though, with researchers failing to publish negative results.
Even if the link between religion and better health is genuine, there is no need to invoke divine intervention to explain it. Some researchers attribute it to the placebo effect – trusting that some deity or other will heal you may be just as effective as belief in a drug or doctor (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 366, p 1838). Others, like Paolo Lissoni of San Gerardo Hospital in Milan, Italy, who did the lung-cancer study mentioned above, believe that the positive emotions associated with “spirituality” promote beneficial physiological responses.
Yet others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study (see “Meditate”, page 34), the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself.
He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful”.