Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain

Abstract

Purpose of Review

Research on psychological well-being in later life has identified strengths and vulnerabilities that occur with aging. We review the conceptual and philosophical foundations of a eudaimonic model of well-being and its empirical translation into six key dimensions of positive functioning. We also consider its implications for health, broadly defined.

Recent Findings

Numerous findings from national longitudinal samples of US adults are described. They show declining scores on purpose in life and personal growth with aging, but also underscore the notable variability among older persons in these patterns. Recently, health benefits have been identified among older adults who maintain high levels of a particular aspect of well-being, namely, purposeful life engagement. These benefits include extended longevity, reduced risk for various disease outcomes, reduced physiological dysregulation, and gene expression linked to better inflammatory profiles. The brain mechanisms that underlie such outcomes are also examined via a focus on affective style. Adults with higher levels of purpose in life show more rapid recovery from negative stimulus provocation, whereas those with higher well-being overall show sustained activation of reward circuitry in response to positive stimuli, and this pattern is associated with lower diurnal cortisol output. Volumetric findings (right insular gray matter volume) have also been linked with eudaimonic well-being.

Summary

Eudaimonic well-being predicts better health and longer lives, and thus constitutes an important direction for future research and practice. Intervention studies designed to promote well-being, including among those suffering from psychological disorders, are briefly described.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

References

Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

  1. 1.

    Ryan RM, Deci EL. On happiness and human potentials: a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annu Rev Psychol. 2001;52:141–66. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Diener E, Suh EM, Lucas RE, Smith HL. Subjective well-being: three decades of progress. Psychol Bull. 1999;125(2):276–302.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Kahneman D, Diener E, Schwarz N, editors. Well-being: the foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation; 1999.

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Ryan RM, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intristic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am Psychol. 2000;55(1):68–78.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.••

    Ryff CD. Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1989;57(6):1069–81. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069. Key article describing eudaimonic model of well-being.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.••

    Ryff CD. Psychological well-being revisited: advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychother Psychosom. 2014;83(1):10–28. doi:10.1159/000353263. Major recent review article summarizing diverse findings linked with eudaimonic well-being.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Allport GW. Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston; 1961.

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Bühler C. The curve of life as studied in biographies. J Appl Psychol. 1935;43:653–73. doi:10.1037/h0054778.

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Erikson EH. Identity and the life cycle: selected papers. Psychol Issues. 1959;1:1–171.

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Frankl VE. Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press; 1959.

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Jahoda M. Current concepts of positive mental health. New York: Basic Books; 1958.

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Jung CG. Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World; 1933.

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Maslow AH. Toward a psychology of being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand; 1968.

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Neugarten BL. Personality change in late life: a developmental perspective. In: Eisodorfer C, Lawton MP, editors. The psychology of adult development and aging. Washington: American Psychological Association; 1973. p. 311–35.

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Rogers CR. On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1961.

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press; 1925.

  17. 17.

    Ryff CD, Singer BH. Know thyself and become what you are: a eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. J Happiness Stud. 2008;9(1):13–39. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9019-0.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Ryff CD, Keyes CLM. The structure of psychological well-being revisited. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1995;69(4):719–27. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.4.719.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Springer KW, Pudrovska T, Hauser RM. Does psychological well-being change with age? Longitudinal tests of age variations and further exploration of the multidimensionality of Ryff’s model of psychological well-being. Soc Sci Res. 2011;40(1):392–8. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2010.05.008.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Riley MW, Kahn RL, Foner A. Age and structural lag. New York: Wiley; 1994.

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.•

    Boyle PA, Barnes LL, Buchman AS, Bennett DA. Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosom Med. 2009;71(5):574–9. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181a5a7c0. First study to document that high purposeful engagement prospectively predicts longer length of life.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Hill PL, Turiano NA. Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(7):1482–6. doi:10.1177/0956797614531799.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Cohen R, Bavishi C, Rozanski A. Purpose in life and its relationship to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events: a meta-analysis. Psychosom Med. 2016;78(2):122–33. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000274.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.•

    Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimers disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(3):304–10. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.208. First paper to document that high purposeful engagement predicts reduced risk of Alzheimers disease and mild cognitive impairment.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.••

    Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Wilson RS, Yu L, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. JAMA Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):499–506. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1487. Important new findings documenting that high purposeful engagement is protective of better cognitive function even in the face of high organic pathology in the brain.

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Yu L, Boyle PA, Wilson RS, Levine SR, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Purpose in life and cerebral infarcts in community-dwelling older people. Stroke. 2015. doi:10.1161/strokeaha.114.008010.

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Kim ES, Sun JK, Park N, Kubzansky LD, Peterson C. Purpose in life and reduced risk of myocardial infarction among older U.S. adults with coronary heart disease: a two-year follow-up. J Behav Med. 2013;36(2):124–33. doi:10.1007/s10865-012-9406-4.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Kim ES, Sun JK, Park N, Peterson C. Purpose in life and reduced stroke in older adults: the health and retirement study. J Psychosom Res. 2013;74(5):427–32. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.01.013.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.••

    Kim ES, Strecher VJ, Ryff CD. Purpose in life and use of preventive health care services. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(46):16331–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1414826111. First paper to show that high purposeful engagement prospectively predicts better preventive health practices.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Windsor TD, Curtis RG, Luszcz MA. Sense of purpose as a psychological resource for aging well. Dev Psychol. 2015;51(7):975–86. doi:10.1037/dev0000023.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.•

    Zilioli S, Slatcher RB, Ong AD, Gruenewald T. Purpose in life predicts allostatic load ten years later. J Psychosom Res. 2015;79(5):451–7. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.09.013. First paper to show that purposeful life engagement predicts reduced allostatic load ten years later.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Seeman TE, Singer BH, Rowe JW, McEwen B. Allostatic load as a marker of cumulative biological risk: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001;98(8):4770–5.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.•

    Friedman EM, Ryff CD. Living well with medical comorbidities: a biopsychosocial perspective. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012;67(5):535–44. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbr152. Important findings showing that high well-being moderates (buffers against) the link between later life comorbidity and inflammatory processes.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JMG, et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(33):13684–9. doi:10.1073/pnas.1305419110.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JMG, Ma J, et al. Psychological well-being and the human conserved transcriptional response to adversity. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(3):17. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121839.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Cole SW, Levine ME, Arevalo JMG, Ma J, Weir DR, Crimmins EM. Loneliness, eudaimonia, and the human conserved transcriptional response to adversity. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015;62:11–7. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.07.001.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Mather M. The affective neuroscience of aging. Annu Rev Psychol. 2016;67:213–38. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033540.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Fjell AM, Walhovd KB. Structural brain changes in aging: courses, causes and cognitive consequences. Rev Neurosci. 2010;21(3):187–221. doi:10.1515/REVNEURO.2010.21.3.187.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bäckman L, Lindenberger U, Li S-C, Nyberg L. Linking cognitive aging to alterations in dopamine neurotransmitter functioning: recent data and future avenues. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010;34(5):670–7. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.12.008.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Brabec J, Rulseh A, Hoyt B, Vizek M, Horinek D, Hort J, et al. Volumetry of the human amygdala—an anatomical study. Psychiatry Res Neuroimaging. 2010;182(1):67–72. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.11.005.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Mather M, Canli T, English T, Whitfield S, Wais P, Ochsner K, et al. Amygdala responses to emotionally valenced stimuli in older and younger adults. Psychol Sci. 2004;15(4):259–63. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00662.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Waldinger RJ, Kensinger EA, Schulz MS. Neural activity, neural connectivity, and the processing of emotionally valenced information in older adults: links with life satisfaction. Cognitive, Affective Behav Neurosci. 2011;11(3):426–36. doi:10.3758/s13415-011-0039-9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Tomasi D, Volkow ND. Functional connectivity density and the aging brain. Mol Psychiatry. 2012;17(5):471. doi:10.1038/mp.2012.27.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Sala-Llonch R, Bartres-Faz D, Junque C. Reorganization of brain networks in aging: a review of functional connectivity studies. Front Psychol. 2015;6:663. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00663.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.••

    Schaefer SM, Boylan JM, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, Ryff CD, et al. Purpose in life predicts better emotional recovery from negative stimuli. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(11):e80329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080329. Important findings linking brain-based assessments of emotional recovery to higher levels of purpose in life.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Lang PJ, Bradley MM, Cuthbert BN. Emotion, attention, and the startle reflex. Psychol Rev. 1990;97(3):377–95. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.97.3.377.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Angrilli A, Mauri A, Palomba D, Flor H, Birbaumer N, Sartori G, et al. Startle reflex and emotion modulation impairment after a right amygdala lesion. Brain. 1996;119(Pt 6):1991–2000.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Buchanan TW, Tranel D, Adolphs R. Anteromedial temporal lobe damage blocks startle modulation by fear and disgust. Behav Neurosci. 2004;118(2):429–37. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.118.2.429.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Davis M. Neural systems involved in fear and anxiety measured with fear-potentiated startle. Am Psychol. 2006;61(8):741–56. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.61.8.741.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Helliwell JF, Layard R, Sachs J. World happiness report. New York: United Nations; 2015.

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Sprengelmeyer R, Steele JD, Mwangi B, Kumar P, Christmas D, Milders M, et al. The insular cortex and the neuroanatomy of major depression. J Affect Disord. 2011;133(1-2):120–7. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2011.04.004.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Lewis GJ, Kanai R, Rees G, Bates TC. Neural correlates of the “good life”: eudaimonic well-being is associated with insular cortex volume. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014;9(5):615–8. doi:10.1093/scan/nst032.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Craig AD. How do you feel—now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009;10(1):59–70. doi:10.1038/nrn2555.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Singer T, Critchley HD, Preuschoff K. A common role of insula in feelings, empathy and uncertainty. Trends Cogn Sci. 2009;13(8):334–40. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.05.001.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Persson N, Ghisletta P, Dahle CL, Bender AR, Yang Y, Yuan P, et al. Regional brain shrinkage over two years: individual differences and effects of pro-inflammatory genetic polymorphisms. Neuroimage. 2014;103:334–48. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.09.042.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Haber SN, Knutson B. The reward circuit: linking primate anatomy and human imaging. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010;35(1):4–26. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.129.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.••

    Heller AS, van Reekum CM, Schaefer SM, Lapate RC, Radler BT, Ryff CD, et al. Sustained ventral striatal activity predicts eudaimonic well-being and cortisol output. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(11):2191–200. doi:10.1177/0956797613490744. Important new findings showing links between sustained engagement of reward circuitry in response to positive stimuli and higher eudaimonic well-being, and relatedly, lower diurnal cortisol profiles.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.•

    van Reekum CM, Urry HL, Johnstone T, Thurow ME, Frye CJ, Jackson CA, et al. Individual differences in amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity are associated with evaluation speed and psychological well-being. J Cogn Neurosci. 2007;19(2):237–48. doi:10.1162/jocn.2007.19.2.237. Important findings showing that eudaimonic well-being is linked with different patterns of activation in various brain regions involved in emotion and executive function.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Sakaki M, Nga L, Mather M. Amygdala functional connectivity with medial prefrontal cortex at rest predicts the positivity effect in older adults’ memory. J Cogn Neurosci. 2013;25(8):1206–24. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00392.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Urry HL, van Reekum CM, Johnstone T, Kalin NH, Thurow ME, Schaefer HS, et al. Amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex are inversely coupled during regulation of negative affect and predict the diurnal pattern of cortisol secretion among older adults. J Neurosci. 2006;26(16):4415–25.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Williams LM, Brown KJ, Palmer D, Liddell BJ, Kemp AH, Olivieri G, et al. The mellow years?: neural basis of improving emotional stability over age. J Neurosci. 2006;26(24):6422–30. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.0022-06.2006.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Mather M, Carstensen LL. Aging and motivated cognition: the positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends Cogn Sci. 2005;9(10):496–502. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Isaacowitz DM, Allard ES, Murphy NA, Schlangel M. The time course of age-related preferences toward positive and negative stimuli. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2009;64(2):188–92. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbn036.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    van Reekum CM, Schaefer SM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, Greischar LL, Davidson RJ. Aging is associated with positive responding to neutral information but reduced recovery from negative information. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6(2):177–85. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq031.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Keyes CLM. The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. J Health Soc Behav. 2002;43(2):207–22.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Keyes CLM, Dhingra SS, Simoes EJ. Change in level of positive mental health as a predictor of future risk of mental illness. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(12):2366. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2010.192245.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.•

    Ruini C, Ryff CD. Using eudaimonic well-being to improve lives. In: Wood AM, Johnson J, editors. The Wiley handbook of positive clinical psychology: an integrative approach to studying and improving well-being. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell; 2016. Review article summarizing numerous clinical interventions for treating depression and anxiety with well-being therapy as well as preventive educational interventions in schools (for adolescents) and in community contexts (for older adults).

    Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Fava GA, Ruini C, Belaise C. The concept of recovery in major depression. Psychol Med. 2007;37(3):307–17. doi:10.1017/s0033291706008981.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Fava GA. Well-being therapy: conceptual and technical issues. Psychother Psychosom. 1999;68:171–9. doi:10.1159/000012329.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Fava GA, Rafanelli C, Cazzaro M, Conti S, Grandi S. Well-being therapy: a novel psychotherapeutic approach for residual symptoms of affective disorders. Psychol Med. 1998;28(2):475–80.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Fava GA, Ruini C, Rafanelli C, Finos L, Conti S, Grandi S. Six-year outcome of cognitive behavior therapy for prevention of recurrent depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2004;161(10):1872–6.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Fava GA, Ruini C, Rafanelli C, Finos L, Salmaso L, Mangelli L, et al. Well-being therapy of generalized anxiety disorder. Psychother Psychosom. 2005;74(1):26–30. doi:10.1159/000082023.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Ruini C, Albieri E, Vescovelli F. Well-being therapy: state of the art and clinical exemplifications. J Contemp Psychother. 2015;45:129–36. doi:10.1007/s10879-014-9290-z.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Ruini C, Fava GA. Well-being therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. J Clin Psychol. 2009;65(5):510–9. doi:10.1002/jclp.20592.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Ruini C, Belaise C, Brombin C, Caffo E, Fava GA. Well-being therapy in school settings: a pilot study. Psychother Psychosom. 2006;75(6):331–6. doi:10.1159/000095438.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Tomba E, Belaise C, Ottolini F, Ruini C, Bravi A, Albieri E, et al. Differential effects of well-being promoting and anxiety-management strategies in a non-clinical school setting. J Anxiety Disord. 2010;24(3):326–33. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.01.005.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Friedman EM, Ruini C, Foy R, Jaros L, Sampson H, Ryff CD. Lighten up! A community-based group intervention to promote psychological well-being in older adults. Aging Ment Health. 2015. doi:10.1080/13607863.2015.1093605.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  78. 78.•

    Davidson RJ, McEwen BS. Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nat Neurosci. 2012;15(5):689–95. doi:10.1038/nn.3093. Important overview of factors influencing neuroplasticity, including interventions to enhance experiences of well-being.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carol D. Ryff.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

Dr. Carol D. Ryff declares grants from the National Institute on Aging, on which some findings in this article are based (Grant number 1U19AG051426-01A1). Dr. Stacey M. Schaefer and Dr. Richard J. Davidson declare a grant from the National Institute on Aging (P01 AG020166). Dr. Aaron S. Heller and Dr. Carien van Reekum declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.

Additional information

This article is part of the Topical Collection on Geropsychiatry & Cognitive Disorders of Late Life

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ryff, C.D., Heller, A.S., Schaefer, S.M. et al. Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep 3, 318–327 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-016-0096-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • Eudaimonic well-being
  • Purpose in life
  • Morbidity
  • Mortality
  • Biological risk factors
  • Neural mechanisms
  • Intervention studies