The Importance of Having a Sense of Purpose

Recent study links strong life purpose and health.

Posted Jun 04, 2019

Having a sense of purpose in life is associated with a lower risk of death, according to a study published on May 24, 2019, in JAMA Network Open.

The research, which sampled almost 7,000 people, included a Psychological Well-Being evaluation—a seven-item questionnaire which assessed purpose in life (Alimujiang, et al, 2019). The researchers concluded: “This study’s results indicated that stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality. Purposeful living may have health benefits” (2019, p. 2). It's important to note that the study indicates associations between a sense of purpose and health, but not causation.

Moni Mckein from Pixabay
Source: Moni Mckein from Pixabay

This research joins an increasing number of studies (Cohen et al, 2016; McKnight & Kashdan, 2009) showing a connection between a sense of purpose, health benefits, and overall quality of life.  

Stanford psychologist William Damon and colleagues (2003, p. 121) define purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” Their definition of purpose includes three components:

  1. In contrast with simple day-to-day objectives, such as getting dinner on the table or driving to work, purpose is “more stable and far-reaching” (p. 121).
  2. It has an external facet that involves reaching in some way beyond one’s self.
  3. It involves achievement, progress, or completion.

Leaders in the growing, evidence-based field of positive psychology explain purpose and meaning as cornerstones of happiness, flow, optimal experience, and a life well-lived (Seligman, 2011; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Fredrickson, 2009). 

Purpose opens opportunities. This information can awaken us to define goals and ideals that are personally meaningful and reach beyond ourselves in some way to progressively define our existence.  Purpose does not have specific definitions or boundaries. Whether we experience a sense of purpose as a volunteer, receptionist, carpenter, teacher, maintenance worker, parent, or physician does not matter: It is having a sense of purpose that matters.

With Baby Boomers transitioning to retirement in record numbers, the pursuit of purpose becomes a topic of broad and compelling relevance. Seeking purpose and meaning can open doors to cultivate well-being as we navigate the challenges and opportunities of the second half of life.  Perhaps these findings recommend a shift from a retirement of leisure to a retirement of meaning.

Having a purpose — whether large or small, whether we reach the objective or continue to strive for it — informs our existence in important ways that may impact physical and mental health and overall well-being. 

This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Alimujiang, A., Wiensch, A., Boss, J, Fleischer, N.L., Mondul, A.M., McLean, K., Mukherjee, B., & Pierce, C.L. (2019). Association between life purpose and mortality among US adults older than 50 years. JAMA Network Open, 2(5). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2734064

Cohen, R., Bavishi, C, & Rosanski, A. (2015). Purpose in life and its relationship to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events: a meta-analysis. Psychosomatic Medicine, 78(2), 122-133.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Damon, W., Menon, J. & Bronk, K.C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

McKnight, P.E. & Kashdan T.B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory.  Review of General Psychology 13(3), 242-251.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: NY: Atria Paperback.