Greater Purpose in Life and Brain Health

Good ol’ Norman Vincent Peale convinced the world a long time ago that there is power in positive thinking, but even he might have been surprised to know that there may be neurological benefits, as well. In a recent and much publicized study (Boyle, 2012), patients with the physical indicators of Alzheimer’s disease — amyloid, tangles, and other pathologic changes revealed by brain scan — were assessed annually for both cognitive ability and “purpose in life.” Those reporting a strong purpose in life during an interview showed less cognitive decline over the course of their lives. In short, those with a greater purpose seemed better able to battle the effects of AD. What no one knows for sure is how or why that happens. But there are theories, from researchers, social scientists, and spiritual thinkers.

Positivity seems to be one contributor. Studies have shown that a positive attitude may increase immune system response and speed healing, and there’s no reason to think the brain would be an exception.

Dr. Helena Popovic maintains that having goals and aspirations feeds the brain, especially if clear goals are set; once the brain knows specifically what you want to achieve, it can work effectively to get you there. Popovic suggests using positive self-talk, or uplifting communication to yourself about what you want to turn on brain cell activity. For example: make daily affirmations in the mirror or during meditation such as “I want to accomplish (your goal). I know I can do this, as I am well trained and prepared to do an excellent job.” Negative thinking on the other hand, discourages brain activity, and may lead to chronic stress, which negatively affects cognitive health. Deepak Chopra, author of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being, encourages maximizing positive input to the brain throughout life. He goes beyond advising regular exercise, balanced diet, and healthy relationships, advocating inspiring the brain to function better through better attitudes, positive emotions, and healthy belief systems. He maintains that these thoughts can create new pathways in the brain, which can change throughout life if we challenge and inspire it.

The mechanism isn’t clearly understood, but the consensus seems to be that having a reason to get out of bed in the morning may keep you getting out of bed for many more mornings to come.


Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Yu, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. (2012, May). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 69(5):499-504.
Goode, E. (2003, September 2). Power of Positive Thinking May Have a Health Benefit, Study Says. New York Times
Popovic, H. (2012, January 31). To Harness Neuroplasticity, Start with Enthusiasm.