Updated: Jan 8
Is your life purpose-driven?
For most, the existential meaning of purpose seems hard to reach, and sometimes, life's relentless demands push the search for purpose to the back of our minds. That’s especially true now, during a time when survival often seems as though it deserves our full attention.
But what if purpose provides oxygen for your soul and fuel for your body and deserves to be one of the first things we think about when we wake up each morning? Many psychology researchers believe purpose powers emotional and physical thriving. Evidence is beginning to show that when we live with purpose, we also live longer, healthier and more active lives.
Could this be a healthy thing to cultivate during a pandemic?
What is purpose?
Our purpose influences the goals we pursue and creates meaning for what fuels our goals. Purpose drives us to act with intention. The Greek termed the sense of purpose and meaning in life as 'eudaimonic well being.' Today, we call it human flourishing.
Our drive to flourish is powerful. The purpose drive might be programmed into our DNA. New research suggests following your inner compass promotes physical and emotional health.
The purpose-longevity link
Purpose predicts psychological and physical well being. There are clear links between a purposeful life and longevity.
In Blue Zones, Dan Buettner profiles communities around the world with the longest lifespans. From fishing villages in Japan to Italy’s Mediterranean islands, Buettner searches for longevity clues. It turns out that centenarians all around the world have one thing in common: a sense of purpose. The average Okinawan lives 7 years longer than the average American. These island peoples have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. Buettner also found they have an ‘ikigai’ - a reason to get up in the morning. This future-orientation provides psychological and physical motivation in the face of life’s challenges.
Scientific research studies have borne out Buettner’s anecdotal observations on the purpose-lifespan link.
Digging into 'well being'
The reciprocal link between physical health and well being is well established. The presence of one tends to predict the other. But there are many different ways to assess well being. Life satisfaction, economic stability, happiness, and other metrics are often bundled into the term.
University of College London researchers studied the effect of eudaimonic well being - a sense of purpose and meaning - on physical health. The well being metric captured autonomy, sense of control, purpose in life, and self-realization. The study found a clear link between lower mortality and purpose in older adults.
Researchers suspect the health and purpose link is bidirectional. It's not surprising that older adults with chronic illness ranked lower in well being. But evidence suggests eudaimonic well being itself improves physical wellness. A sense of purpose seems to protect against aging.
The study lasted eight years. Participants with the highest eudaimonic well being were the least likely to die. The mortality rate for this group was 9.3%. In contrast, almost a third of those with the lowest eudaimonic well passed away by the study's end.
Purpose-driven older adults had a 30% reduction in mortality compared to their less-purposeful counterparts. The mortality gap remained after controlling for physical health, mental health, and other demographics. Researchers also controlled for risk behaviors like smoking or physical inactivity.
Similar investigations lend extra support to the purpose and longevity link. Purposeful activities like volunteerism and pet ownership are also correlated with lower mortality rates. The association between purpose and health is not definitively causal. Still, the available evidence raises powerful questions about the power of purpose.
Purpose and hope are powerful motivators
How can a sense of purpose protect against aging and improve physical health?
In the 1950s, a Johns Hopkins scientist tested rats' swimming endurance. The results were not impressive. In a high-walled tank, Dr. Curt Richter's rats swam for an average of only 15 minutes before giving up and starting to drown.
In the next experiment, Dr. Richter rescued the drowning rats. He dried them off and let them rest for a brief time before putting them back in the water tank. The difference? The rescued rats now swam for an average of 60 hours before giving up - 240 times longer than before. It seems that the hope for a better future and life itself gave these rats energy to keep swimming.
Instilling hope into rats might be a crude proxy for purpose. But leading psychologists speculate that the transformative power of purpose does act through motivation. Purpose gives us motivation, and this motivation has an impact on life outcomes. Via motivation, purpose may boost life expectancy, life satisfaction, and physical and mental health.
Purpose is important from an evolutionary perspective. Purpose is a compass for action that helps us make the best of our limited resources.
Purpose also creates resilience in the face of setbacks, providing fuel for persistence. Absent purpose, chronic stress becomes meaningless and hampers immune function. Purpose can buffer against immune system harm. Purpose can also modulate the cardiovascular effects of stress. Researchers further theorize that a lack of purpose leaves us prone to emotional problems. Depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviors may manifest in the absence of healthy coping strategies. Eudaimonic well being has also been associated with an increase in the cortical volume of certain brain regions. With purpose-driven motivation, we have extra reserves to meet life's challenges.
How can I re-engage with my purpose?
The pursuit of purpose holds intrinsic rewards. Purpose's potential link to longevity is just one more reason to live a life of meaning. If you want to get back in touch with your personal purpose, try the following exercise.
This exercise helps you envision your best possible future self. It helps you define your own sense of meaning. After completing the exercise, you may find you're reminded of what gets you out of the bed in the morning. You might also find you need to make some changes to create a more purposeful life.
Finding purpose during the holiday season is also a great time to begin practicing this process of envisioning. The extra space from work may be just what you need to find the time to really tackle this milestone.
Envisioning Your Best Possible Future Self
You will need paper, a pen, and a timer set for 15 minutes.
Take this time to check in with the 'future you.' Write about your vision of your best possible future self. Visualize your ultimate potential across all aspects of your life:
Get as specific as possible. For example, if you think about moving to a new town, go deep. What kind of house would you live in? What would your neighbors would be like? These little details create a more powerful and more engaging vision.
As you scan your life, resist the urge to reflect on any present problems. Instead, write your positive, forward-thinking vision of the ideal future in each domain.
This visioning exercise taps into the meaning you wish to create in life. It helps you sense and create your own emerging future self. As a side benefit, researchers find that completing this exercise daily for two weeks boost happiness for a month. You don’t have much to lose by trying, and it may shift your perspective to be more forward thinking and expansive during a time like this when our lives can feel contracted.
Buettner D. ‘The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’ National Geographic 2010
Steptoe A and others. ‘Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing’ The Lancet 2014: volume 385, number 9968, pages 640 - 648 (viewed 9 July 2016)
Hallinan J. ‘The Remarkable Power of Hope’ Psychology Today 2014 (viewed 9 July 2016)
Sheldon, K and Lyubomirsky S. ‘How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves’ Journal of Positive Psychology 2006, volume 1, issue 2, pages 73-82 (viewed 9 July 2016)
Reker G and Wong P. ‘Meaning and Purpose in Life and Well-Being: A Life-Span Perspective’ Journal of Gerontology 1987 volume 42, issue 1, pages 44 - 49 (viewed 9 July 2016)
McKnight P and Kashdan T. ‘Purpose in Life as a System that Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory’ Review of General Psychology 2009: volume 13, issue 3, pages 242 - 251 (viewed 9 July 2016)
Lewis G and others. ‘Neural correlates of the ‘good life’: eudaimonic well-being is associated with insular cortex volume’ Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2014 volume 9, issue 5, 615- 618 (viewed 9 July 2016)