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A Sense of Purpose Means a Longer Life

Purpose not only enhances well-being, but can extend our lives.

Do you have a strong sense of purpose and direction in your life?

If you answer yes to this question, then you may have a 15% higher chance of still being alive in the 2028.

That sounds crazy, but it’s based on research – in 2000, more than 6000 people were asked this and similar questions. This year, researchers at the University of Carleton in Canada did a follow up study. They found that, over those 14 years, around 9% of the participants had died. They also found that people who reported a strong sense of purpose were 15% less likely to be amongst those who had passed away. This applied to every age group. If they reported a strong sense of purpose they were 15% more likely to still be alive. (1)

And in a study published just this month, researchers at University College London found that, for people over the age of 65, a sense of purpose and overall well-being meant that they were 30% less likely to die over a period of eight and a half years. This study followed over 9,000 English people and found that, at the end of the eight and half year period, only 9% of people in the highest category of well-being had died, compared with 29% of those at the lowest level of well-being. Those who reported the highest level of fulfilment lived, on average, two years longer. (2)

But why does a sense of purpose have such a positive effect on our mental and physical well-being? I would suggest four main reasons.

Motivation. It’s easy to lose motivation in our lives. Sometimes we might wake up in the morning and ask ourselves , ‘What’s the point of all this?’ Waking up, having a shower, eating breakfast, going to work, day after day… But with a strong sense of purpose we never ask that question. We always have a motive and a reason for everything we do.

Orientation. In a similar way, sometimes we might lose our sense of direction in life. The world is a big place, life is long (even longer if you have a sense of purpose) and there are so many possibilities open to us. So sometimes we might feel that we’re not where we’re supposed to be, not heading in the right direction, and feel confused and disoriented. But with a strong sense of purpose, this is much less likely. We know exactly where we are, and exactly where we’re going

Resilience. A sense of purpose enables us to overcome challenges and transcend difficulties which might normally overwhelm us. It gives us the determination and endurance to keep going in the midst of hardship and suffering. There is great quote from the philosopher Nietzsche which illustrates this: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’

Positivity. Purpose gives us access to optimism and hope. It gives us resistance to states of psychological discord such as depression, anxiety, boredom and frustration. It’s usually when we lose our sense of purpose that we become vulnerable to psychological discord. For example, in my view there’s a strong connection between addiction and loss of purpose. In fact, in a strange way addiction can be seen as an attempt to regain a basic sense of purpose when no other is available. The purpose becomes to supply yourself with the substance you’re addicted to.

Does a Sense of Purpose Mean not Living in the Present?

And it’s worth pointing out that having a sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we stop living in the present. This can happen, especially with a 'personal accumulative' type of purpose, when our goals are specifically defined and when we head towards them with too much focus and rigidity. We might become so focused on the future, and so determined to reach it, that the present loses it value, and we stop paying attention to it. We might spend so much time looking forward that we forget to look around. (I'm going to focus on different types and levels of purpose in my next blog.)

However, this doesn’t have to be the case. We can still live in the present at the same as moving with the flow of our purpose, in the same way that a person on a train journey can look out of the window and enjoy the scenery.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity andThe Fall.

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