Flourishing, purpose and wellbeing

Investigating the health implications of meaning, purpose & wellbeing using large datasets

The sense that one is living a meaningful life may be important to our health. Meaning in life is a complex construct, including a sense of coherence (the feeling that life makes sense), purpose (having goals and a direction in life), and significance (the sense that one’s life has inherent value and is worth living).

Our work centres on exploring how peoples’ sense of meaning in these areas is correlated with a range of health and wellbeing indicators, including mental health, social cohesion and biological data (e.g. biomarkers of inflammation).  We are looking at this from a longitudinal, statistical perspective using data from cohort studies and exploring associations with health (e.g. chronic diseases, chronic pain, disability, self-rated health), emotional wellbeing (e.g. depressive symptoms, sleep), physical activity, social factors (e.g. close relationships, friends, organizational membership, volunteering, cultural engagement), and economic factors (wealth, income). We are also isolating the relationship between meaning and health outcomes from factors such as age, gender, education and social class.

In an earlier part of this programme of work, we also studied the impact of a course – “Exploring What Matters”, a local community intervention – on the wellbeing and pro-sociality of the participants

Key findings so far:

  • Even after adjustment for age, gender, education and social class, there is a bidirectional relationship between worthwhile ratings and health (e.g. few chronic diseases, no chronic pain), emotional wellbeing (e.g. few depressive symptoms, good sleep), greater physical activity, social factors (e.g. close relationships, friends, organizational membership, volunteering, cultural engagement), biomarkers (e.g. white blood cell count) and economic factors (wealth, income), are linked to better self-reported worthwhile ratings
  • Using a randomised controlled trial, we found that the Exploring What Matters course had strong, positive causal effects on participants’ self-reported subjective wellbeing and mental health. It also induced a shift in participants’ attitudes towards more pro-sociality. These impacts seemed to be sustained two months post-treatment.
  • An analysis of the mechanisms of wellbeing change suggested that effects on Exploring What Matters participants may have come about through changes in knowledge of wellbeing and behaviour in areas that have been shown to be important for wellbeing and in which there is little hedonic adaptation, including mindfulness, social relationships, and pro-social behaviour. Biomarkers collected through saliva samples, including cortisol and a range of cytokines involved in inflammatory response, moved consistently into the hypothesised direction yet failed to reach statistical significance at conventional levels.




Prof Andrew Steptoe
Dr Daisy Fancourt

Programme areas

Behavioural science, epidemiology



Key contact





Krekel,C., De Neve, J.E., Fancourt, D., Layard, R., A local community course that raises wellbeing and pro-sociality: Evidence from a randomised controlled trial, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 188, 2021, p322-336, [DOI]

Steptoe, A., Fancourt, D. An outcome-wide analysis of bidirectional associations between changes in meaningfulness of life and health, emotional, behavioural, and social factors. Sci Rep 10, 6463 (2020). [DOI]

Fancourt, D., Steptoe, A., The longitudinal relationship between changes in wellbeing and inflammatory markers: Are associations independent of depression?, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 83, 2020, p146-152, [DOI]

Steptoe, A., Fancourt, D. Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use, 2019, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 116 (4) 1207-1212, [DOI]