Pursuing goals related to living a meaningful life may boost the activity of certain cells in the immune system, according to a small study of women who lost a relative to breast cancer. Women who placed more importance on these goals at the beginning of the study had higher levels of activity among their “natural killer” immune cells. In addition, women who elevated the importance of these goals over a one-month period showed increases in natural killer cell activity, compared to women who said that the importance of these goals had decreased for them.
Some of the women in the study were asked to write essays about their loss in an attempt to discover whether this activity might change life goals and boost immune activity, but the researchers concluded that the writing exercise itself was not associated with changes in either.
Previous research has shown a strong link between stressful events and immune system functioning, while other studies suggest that some individuals find positive meaning after a stressful event. Bower and colleagues wanted to test whether writing about a stressful event might produce positive psychological changes that could in turn affect the immune system.
For four weeks, half of the women in the study wrote essays about their experience with the loss of a relative from breast cancer, while the other half wrote about non-emotional experiences. The women also answered a series of questions about their life goals and had blood drawn before and after the essay series to monitor changes in their natural killer cells.
Some of the women in the study said that they had increased interest in personal development, relationship building and “striving for meaning in my life” after a month, but these changes were not related to whether they had written about a traumatic or non-emotional event, the researchers say.