Lydia Denworth

Brain Waves

The Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep? Purpose.

Finding meaning in life leads to better sleep, fewer sleep disorders like apnea.

Posted Jul 26, 2017

A restful night's sleep comes with finding meaning in life.
Source: iStock/GeorgeRudy

Those who toss and turn at night or suffer from sleep disorders like apnea or restless leg syndrome may have a new drug-free solution.  A study published this month found that having a purpose in life results in fewer sleep disturbances and improved sleep quality. The researchers behind the study believe that helping people cultivate purpose in life—perhaps through mindfulness therapy—could be an effective strategy for minimizing sleep disorders and improving overall sleep quality.

The study was performed at Northwestern Medicine and Rush University Medical Center. The 825 participants were older, between the ages of 60 and 100, but the results are likely to apply to people of all ages. More than half of the group was African-American.  At the start of the study and then one and two years later, each participant answered a series of questionnaires designed to assess sleep quality and symptoms of three sleep disorders (sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), and REM Behavior Disorder).

They also answered ten questions drawn from an assessment of psychological well-being that specifically measured purpose in life. What qualified as purpose in life? “It’s the idea of having a purpose for what you’re doing with your life, and feeling that your life specifically has meaning,” says neuropsychologist and lead author Arlener Turner. Participants had to rate their responses to questions like this one: “I feel good when I think of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”

Previous work, much of it by psychologist Eric Kim, now at Harvard University, had shown that having purpose in life can be protective against numerous negative health outcomes. The goal of this study was to bring together research on purpose in life and on not just overall sleep quality but specific sleep disorders. Turner conducted the study as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of sleep researcher Jason Ong. They focused on older adults, not because they necessarily have higher purpose, but because they are more likely to have spent time thinking about the question. “When you’re at retirement age, that is a time when you take stock of your purpose in life,” says Turner.

The results were powerful. Those who began with higher purpose had moderately better sleep quality at the start of the study and showed improvement over time. People who felt their lives had meaning were 63 percent less likely to have sleep apnea and 52 percent less likely to have restless leg syndrome. And they had reduced symptoms at the one- and two-year follow-ups. Although Turner and her colleagues expected purpose in life to have some effect on sleep, they were surprised by how robust the findings were on sleep apnea and RLS.

“Individuals who have a higher purpose in life tend to be healthier in general and exhibit more healthy behaviors,” says Turner. “What we think is happening is that having these better health behaviors helps these individuals be at a lower risk for developing biological sleep disorders like sleep apnea and RLS. And it also helps them when it comes to their sleep quality.” It could be in part that those who find more meaning in their daily lives have lower levels of stress and anxiety.

As we age, our sleep patterns change. And certain sleep disorders are more common in older adults. An estimated 32-45% of older adults report some trouble sleeping, whether it’s falling or staying asleep, or disrupted sleep. And 40% of older adults suffer from a sleep disorder. African Americans have a higher prevalence of sleep disturbances than whites. This study marked the first time that purpose in life was linked to the risk of these common sleep disorders. 

Turner also says that is it going to be important to better understand “how exactly purpose in life is enacting this impact on sleep.”  And next steps in the research include investigating whether mindfulness behavior treatment can be helpful in treating the sleep disorders studied.

“Purpose in life is something we know can be cultivated and enhanced,” says Turner. “The tenet of mindfulness-based therapy is that your life has a purpose but you just haven’t thought about what that purpose might be,” says Turner. The therapy doesn’t necessarily provide you with a purpose, but it aims to help you focus on what that might be. Ong, the paper’s senior author, is an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and has previously studied using mindfulness therapy to treat insomnia. Now he and Turner hope to apply that therapy to sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Says Turner, “one of the promising things is that we could very well have an avenue of treatment that does not include drugs.”

It seems having a reason to get up in the morning may be key to helping us sleep better at night.