Meaning and Purpose in Life (Not Goals) Protect the Brain
Write your life mission statement and not New Year's resolutions.
Posted Jan 01, 2021
People are fascinated with setting goals. Millions are spent every year on self-help books, workshops, and courses claiming to improve life by helping you set and realize goals. New Year’s resolutions are based on setting goals for the upcoming year. According to Nielson.com, the top resolutions are staying fit and healthy followed by losing weight. No wonder gym memberships soar in the first few months of the year.
But do people actually accomplish their goals? According to a survey by the Opinion Corporation, while 45 percent of Americans set New Year’s resolutions, only 8 percent accomplish them. The problem with setting clear goals is that the brain thinks that you already reached them! The more we talk about our goals and the more others celebrate our goals, the less motivated we become to achieve them.
Collecting goals is similar to accumulating necklace beads, but unless the beads are assembled on a sturdy string, they scatter everywhere. The beads can be beautiful but are only functional once threaded and secured. The medium on which you may assemble your goals is your purpose. Instead of a list of disparate New Year’s resolutions, write your life mission statement (LMS). The focus should be on where you want to go and not where you have been stuck. Do not worry if you don’t have the skills, because a strong sense of purpose will propel you there.
Neuroimaging research shows that people with a stronger sense of life meaning have more efficiently connected brains. One brain system called default mode network (DMN) consists of areas that are functionally connected to support processing of the self including internal processing. It is the system that is activated when we are not engaged in a specific task. It is typically activated when we are thinking about ourselves or others, mind-wandering or mentally traveling into the future. A greater sense of life meaning is associated with a specific subset of the large DMN that includes emotional processing regions in the limbic system (1). This solid connection with the limbic region in people with a strong sense of meaning allows them to internally reflect upon their own emotional state, particularly when experiencing negative emotions (2). It is not surprising that studies have shown that individuals with high sense of purpose in life report lower levels of negative emotions and are less reactive to stressors in daily life (3).
Lack of meaning promotes loneliness. Interestingly, greater feelings of loneliness are associated with inefficient brain wiring (4). The default network gets mixed up with networks for attention and processing external stimuli. In other words, brain networks become too integrated and less specialized. A strong sense of meaning is associated with the opposite wiring pattern, greater specialization, and less integration across brain networks.
Meaning and purpose provide a sense of coherence in one’s life. In addition to efficient brain wiring, people with a high sense of meaning and purpose in life enjoy many benefits. They report lower depression and anxiety (5), greater happiness (6), and reduced suicidal ideation (7). Patricia Boyle and colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed more than 900 older people at risk for dementia for seven years (8). After controlling for demographics, social network size, and many other factors, they found that having a high purpose in life chopped the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in half!
In addition, among participants without AD, a high sense of purpose was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline due to aging. What is shocking in Boyle’s studies was what postmortem brain examinations showed. In people who had been diagnosed with AD before death, those with high purpose showed sharper cognitive function, even when their brains contained AD-related protein accumulation (9). Another study showed that purpose in life was associated with a 27 percent decrease in risk of having a heart attack within the following two years, even after controlling for many factors (10).
What should you include in a Life Mission Statement (LMS)?
Define your purpose in clear words. You may need to ask yourself a series of why questions until you get to your core element. Do not philosophize! Be honest with yourself.
List three values that you will never compromise, even at your very bottom. Take time to explain why each value is important to your purpose and how it contributes to a meaningful life.
Determine which relationships align with your purpose. Social relationships infuse life with meaning. You will have to rethink the relationships that oppose your purpose. You may have to recruit new relationships that align better with your purpose and values. The presence of close, healthy relationships is crucial to finding meaning in life. The reciprocal is also true, having a meaningful life begets healthy social relationships (11).
But, what if you have no idea what your purpose is?
Then, your LMS becomes "to find my purpose and meaning in life." Don't just exist, but make an intention to live and invest in that intention. Spend time in nature, do abstract activities such as drawing and read about spirituality, meaning in life and other existential questions. Once you find meaning and purpose, you will own the key to unlock any door you encounter.
(1) Waytz, Hershfield & Tamir (2015). Mental stimulation and meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108 336-355.
(2) Kross, E., Ayduk, O. (2011). Making meaning out of negative experiences by self-distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Sci- ence, 20(3), 187–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411408883.
(3) Hill, P.L., Sin, N.L., Turiano, N.A., Burrow, A.L., Almeida, D.M. (2018). Sense of purpose moderates the associations between daily stressors and daily well-being. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 52(8), 724–9. https://doi.org/10.1093/abm/kax039.
(4) Mwilambwe-Tshilobo, Ge, Chong et al., 2019. Lonliness and meaning in life are reflected in the intrinsic network architecture of the brain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, doi: 10.1093/scan/nsz021.
(5) Debats, D. L., Van der Lubbe, P. M., & Wezeman, F. R. (1993). On the psychometric properties of the Life Regard Index (LRI): A measure of meaningful life: An evaluation in three independent samples based on the Dutch version. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 337–345. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(93)90132-M.
(6) Chamberlain, K., & Zika, S. (1988). Measuring meaning in life: An examination of three scales. Personality and Individual Differences, 9, 589–596. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(88)90157-2.
(7) Harlow, L. L., Newcomb, M. D., & Bentler, P. M. (1986). Depression, self-derogation, substance use, and suicide ideation: Lack of purpose in life as a mediational factor. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42, 5–21.
(8) Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Barnes, L. and Bennett, D. (2010). Effect of a Purpose in Life on Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment in Community-Dwelling Older Persons. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 304-310.
(9) Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Wilson, E. et al. (2012). Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 499-506.
(10) Kim, E. Sun, J., Park, N. et al. (2013). Purpose in Life and Reduced Risk of Myocardial Infarction Among Older US Adults with Coronary Heart Disease: A Two Year Followup. J Behav Med., 36, 124-133.
(11) Steptoe, A., Fancourt, D. (2019). Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(4), 1207–12. https://doi.org/10.1073/ pnas.1814723116.