- Having a purpose in life could promote your physical health, mental health, and happiness.
- "Purpose" offers a variety of other benefits as well, including better sleep.
- A sense that your activities are worthwhile could be a key to healthy aging.
Do you have a purpose in life? The answer to that question might be a key to your health and happiness, according to an ever-increasing body of research.
The concept of "purpose in life" is sometimes abbreviated PIL by researchers. "PIL" is not at all a bitter pill, despite the negative connotations of "pill." In fact, the more I read about the many benefits of “purpose,” the more convinced I am of its importance to health and happiness as well as to a sense of your own unique identity. This blog will summarize recent key studies on the relationship between purpose and flourishing.
But what is “purpose in life,” exactly? To put it simply, “purpose” can mean a feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile. When you have a sense of purpose, you feel that you’ve made a deliberate choice to act in accordance with your values and goals. It can work the other way around, too. Your PIL can lead to further goal-setting. Either way, your purpose gives you a sense of being in charge of your own life.
Your purpose does not need to be grandiose; it only needs to be something meaningful to you (and, obviously, not anti-social). Work. A hobby that you love. Devotion to someone you care about. Creative expression. Travel. Treating everyone you meet with kindness. Keeping up your house. Writing a video or book. Starting or expanding a business. Connecting with friends, colleagues, children, and grandchildren.
Whatever your purpose, you can reap a harvest of benefits.
Here, in brief, are 10 benefits that are highly correlated to having a purpose in life, according to recent research. Most studies cited in this blog involve people over 50; other studies suggest that identifying your purpose contributes to life satisfaction for younger people, too.
The first five benefits come from a 2019 survey by British researchers Andrew Steptoe and Daisy Fancourt of over 7,300 men and women aged 50 and older living in the United Kingdom. The average age of participants was 67, with an age range from 50 to 90.
The researchers found that a sense of purpose promoted happiness and well-being among adults 50-90. “Happiness” included a range of positive feelings from pleasure to life satisfaction to the sense of contribution to a larger purpose.
2. Healthy habits
Older adults with a sense of purpose were more likely to practice healthy habits, according to the study. For example, participants with high rankings on PIL were more likely to exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, watch less TV, participate in the arts, and avoid sedentary behaviors. Along the same lines, a recent survey of more than 500 adult participants showed that those with a strong sense of purpose were more likely to engage in protective health behaviors during COVID isolation.
3. Stronger personal relationships
Higher ratings for the belief that life is worthwhile were correlated to the likelihood of having a life partner, less risk of divorce, more contact with friends, membership in various organizations, volunteering, and a greater number of close relationships. Not surprisingly, those with strong PIL also experienced less loneliness.
In addition to a wealth of benefits of purpose in life, PIL also brought wealth itself. Sense of purpose was associated with greater prosperity, including income, paid employment, and assets, even after taking baseline wealth into account.
High “Life is worthwhile” rankings were correlated with better self-rated health, a lower incidence of chronic illness, less chronic pain, lower incidence of depression, and higher functional fitness.
As if that weren’t enough, other studies have heaped more onto the already full plate of purpose benefits, including these:
A study of almost 7,000 U.S. adults over 50 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019 concluded that individuals with stronger purpose in life had lower all-cause mortality. Having a purpose also decreased the chance of premature death. Even after controlling for such factors as depression and chronic illness, those with a low score on sense-of-purpose rankings were almost twice as likely to die during the four years of the study (2006-2010).
7. Better sleep
In a study of older adults, 428 Black and 397 White, researchers discovered that those with a higher level of meaning and purpose in life had better sleep quality. Moreover, they had fewer problems with sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
8. Reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease
In a seven-year study of more than 900 residents in senior housing facilities, researchers discovered that greater purpose in life was associated with a substantially lower rate of incidence of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Even when some study participants were afflicted with AD, higher levels of purpose in life seemed to have a protective effect on cognition, according to this follow-up study.
9. Better mental health
A small study of 77 people in treatment for addictions found that those who had a sense of existential purpose and meaning in life had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, as described here. This result jibes with the U.K. study above, which also discovered that PIL was correlated with fewer depressive symptoms.
10. Better heart health
Reviewing the data on heart health and purpose in life from 10 studies of 136,000 people, cardiologist Randy Cohen concluded that "people with a low sense of purpose... were more likely to have a stroke, heart attack, or coronary artery disease requiring a stent or bypass surgery." By contrast, those with a strong PIL had a 19 percent reduction in cardiovascular events. The research is described by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in this article.
The Power of Purpose: The "Why"
Why does a sense of purpose have so many benefits? I'd speculate that if you feel you have a mission in life, you will take better care of your health so you can accomplish that mission. But the positive effects of a sense of purpose may go deeper than that, even to the cellular level.
A stronger sense of purpose may counter the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol, a hormone that can wreak havoc on numerous body systems. "Purpose" may undo the negative effects of stress, repairing the immune system, calming the heart rate, and lowering blood sugar.
Finding Purpose as You Age
"Purpose in life" may be even more important as we age. According to British researchers Steptoe and Fancourt, “Maintaining a sense that life is worthwhile may be particularly important at older ages when social and emotional ties often fragment, social engagement is reduced, and health problems may limit personal options.”
Defining your unique purpose can be a challenge. One simple way to help yourself is to write down a tentative statement of your purpose; try it on and revise it as you evolve. Other options: Construct a purpose from these six building blocks of self-knowledge here, or follow one of these nine paths to purpose here. Seeing a career counselor or therapist can also be extremely helpful.
Knowing your purpose strengthens your sense of self; it gives you a way to explain who you are both to other people and to yourself.
(c) Meg Selig, 2021. All rights reserved.
LinkedIn image: Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Tomoharu photography/Shutterstock
Steptoe, A. and Fancourt, D. "Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use." PNAS, January 22, 2019 116 (4) 1207-1212.
Alimujiang, A. et al. "Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years." JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194270. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270.
Gupta, S. "Purpose in Life is Good for Your Health." Dec. 7, 2015, Everyday Health.