Sign In This Curious Life

Sign in

Pioneering Purpose: A Health Revolution?
Photography by Getty Images on Unsplash

January 2024 – George Lee

Theme: Purpose

Pioneering Purpose:
A Health Revolution?

Driven by a fascination with purpose, Dr. Koichiro Shiba has dedicated his career to understanding its profound impact on well-being. In a conversation with This Curious Life, Dr. Shiba introduces a groundbreaking notion: what if we integrated purpose testing into routine annual medical check-ups?  

Wall survey asking whtehr you are happy or sad

Photography by Celpax on Unsplash.

Reflecting on his journey to date, Dr. Shiba shares, “As a graduate student, I started to study purpose in life to promote health.” Early investigations into the relationship between purpose and longevity revealed that a heightened sense of purpose acted as a protective factor against mortality. This sparked Dr. Shiba’s interest in exploring how purpose could potentially become a health asset, enhancing longevity across diverse populations. 

 Dr. Shiba furthered his exploration during his postdoctoral work at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. Here, he and his colleagues argued for a more multidimensional perspective on human well-being, challenging the conventional approach that often measures well-being through singular metrics like life satisfaction or happiness. “We argued that human well-being, human flourishing, is multidimensional,” Dr. Shiba explains. “Our well-being is a function of a multi-aspect, and that includes our physical health and mental health, of course, and also subjective well-being, so happiness, but also purpose in life and meaningful social relationships.” 

"Imagine, in addition to your regular health and mental check-ups, having something entirely new—a purpose check-up once a year."

This paradigm shift signified a pivotal moment for Dr. Shiba, transitioning from regarding purpose solely as a promoter of physical health to recognising it as a fundamental component of overall well-being. The next step of his journey involves gathering more evidence but that “first of all, we would need interventions to promote purpose. ” He shares that there is a crucial gap in knowledge with an absence of evidence in effectively promoting purpose, especially at a broader population level. While individual-level interventions show promise, he stresses the need for community and societal strategies to help us cultivate a sense of purpose. 

 Drawing from evidence in Japan, Dr. Shiba shares a promising approach involving community gathering places for older adults. These spaces aim to create opportunities for social interactions and intergenerational connections, ultimately contributing to the promotion of purpose in life. Early evidence suggests that participation in such community initiatives not only improves social connections but also addresses issues like loneliness and may positively impact one’s sense of purpose, thereby enhancing overall health and well-being. 

"I want to ensure that interventions have equitable impacts on population well-being."

Venturing further into a global exploration of purpose, Dr. Shiba and his colleagues are spearheading efforts to explore culturally inclusive ways of assessing well-being and where purpose is a key element. Critiquing current measures like life satisfaction, he contends that these measures are rooted in Western perspectives. In collaboration with Gallup, the global analytics company Dr. Shiba and his colleagues are pioneering the introduction of new well-being metrics. These metrics encompass elements like balance, harmony, and peace, designed to better align with cultural nuances, especially in countries like Japan. 

Idylic peaceful mountains reflected in water

Photography by Ales Krivec on Unsplash.

However, Dr. Shiba raises a critical question about the universality of purpose across cultures. He questions the applicability of universal scales, highlighting potential differences in the qualitative aspects of purpose among individuals, particularly between men and women. The challenge lies in determining whether existing scales effectively capture these nuances and whether different types of purpose have distinct implications for health. 

In a moment of curiosity, I pose a question to Dr. Shiba: If he had all the resources at his disposal, what transformative change would he like to see? This sparks a visionary idea—a groundbreaking shift in our approach to well-being.  

Imagine, he says, that in addition to your regular health and mental check-up you have something entirely new—a purpose check-up once a year. This intriguing idea takes centre stage in Dr. Shiba’s thinking, symbolising a revolutionary shift in how we approach well-being. The notion of purpose check-ups signifies a departure from traditional health assessments, presenting an innovative way to redefine our health routines. This concept not only integrates purpose into our health assessments but also envisions a holistic approach to who we are and all aspects of our health and wellbeing.  

In his final comment Dr. Shiba emphasises a crucial goal—ensuring that interventions in the realm of purpose have equitable impacts on global well-being. His vision is clear, he aims for interventions that don’t merely enhance purpose among socially advantageous individuals but extend their benefits to everyone. The emphasis is on fostering a sense of purpose that reaches diverse populations worldwide. 

Dr. Shiba’s work goes beyond unraveling the complexities of purpose, it serves as a catalyst for innovation in the realm of well-being. The revolutionary idea of purpose check-ups symbolises a real shift, promising a future where purpose becomes an integral part of our health routines, contributing to both individual flourishing and the well-being of communities worldwide. 

More Information

More about Dr. Koiciro Shiba

Dr. Koichiro Shiba is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. Leveraging his expertise in rigorous quantitative methodology and causal inference, his research focuses on the population health effects of positive psychological factors (for instance, purpose in life, Ikigai) and social isolation/loneliness among older adults.

Dr. Shiba

His work also explores inequalities in and determinants of multidimensional well-being (i.e., human flourishing), which extends beyond traditional physical and mental health outcomes and include other key domains of human well-being such as purpose in life and social well-being, capturing health in its fullest sense, defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Before joining Boston University, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. Dr. Shiba earned his PhD in Population Health Sciences from Harvard University. 

Further reading:

 On culturally inclusive wellbeing measures 

On the community interventions to promote connectedness and potentially purpose.

On differential health impacts of purpose in life by socioeconomic status)