Originally published April 7, 2015
Do you know your purpose in life?
In other words, do you have a strong sense of why you’re here, and what you’re meant to be doing?
If not, you’re not alone. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4 out of 10 Americans couldn’t tell you what their life purpose is, and don’t feel they have any clear sense of direction. That’s nearly half. Another quarter don’t feel they have a handle on what gives their lives meaning.
Does it matter? Even if you don’t know exactly where your life is going, or where it should go, do you need to worry your head over it?
Maybe not, but here’s something to consider: Those who have a strong sense of purpose reap critical health benefits.
We’re talking less heart disease, fewer strokes, and a reduced risk of depression, to name just a few. In the end, having a strong sense of purpose might just help you live a longer, healthier life.
Good news, but if you don’t know what your purpose is, how are you supposed to find it?
We can help with that.
The Difference Between Living a Happy or Purposeful Life
Turns out that scientists have been researching this concept of “purpose” for years. We all know that eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and managing stress can help us avoid the major chronic diseases of our time, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. But we’re more than physical machines, and our brains have a big say in just how good we feel as we age.
You’ve probably heard that having a positive outlook can increase quality of life. A 2009 study, for instance, found that women who were more optimistic had lower rates of coronary heart disease and lived longer than more cynical hostile women. A 2011 study also concluded that regardless of income or overall health, a positive outlook affected longevity, and helped people to avoid disease.
But having a sense of purpose goes much deeper than a simple positive outlook. It’s not really about being happy, or upbeat. You can be these things and not have a sense of purpose. When you’re eating an ice cream cone, for example, you probably feel happy, but not necessarily like you’re life has meaning.
The thing about happiness alone is that it’s very fleeting, and can change at the drop of a hat. Researchers noted in a 2013 study, for example, that happiness is essentially a collection of how one feels at different moments, whereas life satisfaction, or purpose, goes beyond momentary feelings to address one’s life as a whole.
“Purpose,” say researchers in a 2009 study, “is a central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning.” They add that purpose provides direction “just as a compass,” offering a person a “self-sustaining source of meaning through goal pursuit and goal attainment.”
And it’s purpose, according to research, that helps us overcome the difficult moments to persevere in life–and that may also give us the good health we need to keep going.
The Health Benefits of Having a Sense of Purpose
That doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy while living our purpose. The two do often go together. But we can be unhappy, too, and still find meaning in what we’re doing. That may be the key to maintaining good health over the long term.
Here’s just a glimpse into some of what scientists have discovered about people who have a high sense of purpose in life:
- They’re less likely to suffer heart disease: Researchers reviewed 10 studies with data from over 137,000 people, and found that those with a high sense of purpose (defined as a “sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worth living”), had a 23 percent reduced risk of death from all causes, and a 19 percent reduced risk of heart attack or stroke, compared to those with a low sense of purpose. “Developing and refining your sense of purpose could protect your heart health and potentially save your life,” said lead author Randy Cohen, M.D.
- They live longer: In addition to the study above, others have shown that those with a sense of purpose are likely to live longer. In 2014, for example, researchers announced the results of a similar study of over 9,000 people with an average age of 65. Researchers had asked the participants questions about their wellbeing, including the feeling that what they did was worthwhile, their sense of purpose, and their sense of control over their lives. Those who had the greatest wellbeing scores were 30 percent less likely to die during the average eight-and-a-half-year follow-up period than those with the lowest wellbeing scores. Researchers concluded that the “meaningfulness and sense of purpose that older people have in their lives is also related to survival.” A second study published in 2014 found similar results–having a sense of purpose was associated with a longer life.
- They have more enjoyable retirements: Back in 2009, researchers studied just over 1,200 elderly participants and found that a higher purpose of live was associated with a reduced risk of mortality. This time, those with a high sense of purpose were about half as likely to die during the five-year follow-up than those with a low sense of purpose. Researchers concluded that the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possessing a sense of intention about life–working toward a goal–contributed to successful aging.
- They’re more resilient: Having a strong sense of purpose in life helps people overcome the inevitable difficulties along the way. If your sole goal is happiness, the loss of a job or loved one, an illness, or other major upset can send you into a downward spiral. If you have something that’s driving you forward, however, you’re more likely to rebound and continue on. “Purpose motivates people to persist rather than quit in the face of difficult situations,” researchers write [McKnight and Kashdan]. They add that it makes us more likely to bounce back, less likely to get ill, and more likely to experience shorter periods of stress. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
Lead researcher at Rush University Medical Center Patricia Boyle says, “I think the take-home message is that people need to be thoughtful about their lives, because having that sense of meaning or purpose will make a huge difference.”
How Do I Find My Purpose?
You’re convinced that a sense of purpose is good for you.
But what if you don’t have one?
Don’t worry–figuring out your purpose can be a fun exercise. Even if you already have a sense of purpose, realize that it may change over the years, and returning to the question is never a waste of time.
Before you dig into the actual research on the subject, remember these five points:
- It’s not always simple: There are a lot of online quizzes out there that promise to deliver your sense of purpose in five minutes or less. Realize that sometimes it takes more time to figure it out. Give yourself that time to sit with the questions and dig deeply into the answers.
- Everyone has a purpose: You may have felt discouraged in the past when you were unable to pinpoint it, and worried that you were the odd one out. After all, there are those people who have a sense of purpose when they are children, and it stays constant with them their entire lives. But not everyone is like that. For many of us, our sense of purpose is ever evolving. Concentrate on what gives your life meaning
- It’s not always what you imagine it should be: We may think that there are only a few main types of purpose out there. Raising children. Devoting one’s life to a religion. Becoming an artist. But the number of possible life aims is just as numerous as the number of people on the planet. Be willing to find the one that is uniquely
- It’s never too late. It doesn’t matter how old you are–you can always find your sense of purpose in life. Maybe you’ve spent your life working a job you don’t really like, or struggling against circumstances that didn’t allow you to express your purpose. That’s okay. Decide today that the rest of your life will be devoted to a new purpose that you design.
- Having a purpose doesn’t require you to be the best: You don’t have to be the best businessman, the best teacher, the best mom, or the best painter to be qualified to live your purpose. Just because someone else sells more paintings than you doesn’t mean that painting isn’t your life purpose. It’s all about what brings your life meaning.
With that said, let’s look at some questions that will get you thinking about your life purpose. When you have some time, sit down with a pen and paper (or laptop computer) and let your thoughts flow. Don’t get caught up in having to come up with a convenient one- or two-sentence purpose for your life. Just let your answers guide you to the new adventure on which you’re about to embark.
- What do you do in your life today that feels important to you? Think over all the activities you’ve engaged in over the past three months. Which ones felt meaningful, or important, to you? It may be the time you spent with your children or other loved ones, time spent on a creative project, or even the time you spent reaching out to a stray cat. Don’t censor yourself–just write down your answers.
- What do you wish you could spend more time doing? Where are your thoughts when you’re bored? What do you wish you could be doing with your time when you have to be doing something you don’t like? Tap your daydreams. They’re full of important clues to your purpose.
- What would you do even if it got unpleasant? Have you biked through storms? Continued to write even though you’ve received fifty rejections? Raised money for a project even though it robbed you of leisure time? Think about those things you do even though they get tough sometimes. These are things you really care about.
- What do you do that makes time stand still? Do you lose track of time when you’re gardening, working on an old car, or creating a new computer program? Think about those things you do that get you into the “zone,” or “flow.” These are things that come naturally to you, and likely indicate areas where you could find meaning. If you can’t think of anything you do today that makes you feel that way, think back to your childhood. What did you used to spend hours doing?
- What do you often think about doing, but are afraid to do? Often what we want and what we’re afraid of are very similar. Do you think about traveling the country and giving presentations on a topic you’re passionate about, but you’re afraid of public speaking? Do you think about singing the songs you’ve written to an audience, but you’re afraid to get up on stage? Do you think about caring for people, but are afraid to go back to college to get your nursing degree? Mine your fears for clues.
- How do you enrich the lives of others? Research shows that humans typically find meaning in giving to others. It’s not when we’re satisfying our own little wants and needs that we feel on purpose–it’s when what we’re doing has effects beyond ourselves. Where in your life do you enrich others? How do your efforts contribute to others’ lives? Don’t over-think this. Maybe you give others work and security through your business; provide a clean floor at the theater, school, or museum; arrange beautiful flowers for birthdays and weddings; or cook delicious food. Match those things that benefit others with the things you enjoy doing, and you’re getting closer to your purpose.
- What would you do if you couldn’t go home? The police come around and say sorry, you can come home only to sleep at night. The rest of the time you have to go busy yourself. Oh, and by the way, they’re going to take care of your finances, so you don’t have to go to work if you don’t want to. How would you spend your days? Your answer provides insights into what you’re naturally drawn to, and what brings you meaning.
When you’ve finished answering these questions, give yourself a few days, and then come back and revisit them. Hopefully you’ll get closer to finding your purpose in life, and enjoying the health benefits.
Even better if you become motivated to pursue that purpose, for that’s when the real magic happens.
Do you find that having a sense of purpose makes you stronger and healthier? Please share your thoughts.
Rosemarie Kobau, et al., “Well-Being Assessment: An Evaluation of Well-being Scales for Public Health and Population Estimates of Well-Being among US Adults,” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, November 2010; 2(3):272-297, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01035.x/abstract.
Emily Esfahani Smith, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” The Atlantic, January 9, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/.
Tindle HA, et al., “Optimism, cynical hostility, and incident coronary heart disease and mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative,” Circulation, August 25, 2009; 120(8):656-62, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19667234.
Ed Diener, Micaela Y. Chan, “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity,” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011; 3(1):1-43, http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~ediener/Documents/Diener-Chan_2011.pdf.
Lauren Woods, “Purpose in Life May Help You Live Longer, Mount Sinai St Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt Study,” Mount Sinai Health System, [Press Release], March 9, 2015, http://www.biospace.com/News/purpose-in-life-may-help-you-live-longer-mount/367858.
Andrew Steptoe, et al., “Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing,” The Lancet, February 14, 2015; 385(9968):640-648, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)61489-0/abstract.
Patricia A. Boyle, et al, “Purpose in Life is Associated with Mortality Among Community-Dwelling Older Persons,” Psychosom Med., June 2009; 71(5):547-579, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2740716/.
Patrick L. Hill, Nicholas A. Turiano, “Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood,” Psychological Science, May 8, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0956797614531799, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/06/0956797614531799.abstract.
Patrick E. McKnight and Todd B. Kashdan, “Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory,” Review of General Psychology, 2009; 13(3):242-251, http://toddkashdan.com/articles/Mcknight%20&%20Kashdan%20(2009)%20Purpose%20in%20life%20Rev%20Gen%20Psy.pdf.