A Hidden Link Between Your Life Purpose and Physical Health

New research shows how your experience of meaning affects your long-term health.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

You can easily find a number of books and guides for finding or creating your life’s “purpose” and “meaning.” But could doing so affect your physical health—for better or for worse?

A new study says yes. It found that if you experience meaning and purpose in your life, you're more likely to be physically healthy, as well as mentally. “We found presence of meaning was associated with better physical functioning and better mental functioning," said senior study author Dr. Dilip Jeste. Moreover, “finding meaning in one's life can help people stay healthy in later years.”

The research also found, however, that if you search and struggle continuously to find a purpose, it may have a negative effect on your physical health. Moreover, a fruitless search also negatively affects your relationships, your cognitive functioning, and your overall psychological health. In short, if you don’t have a purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out, according to the researchers.

These findings add to the increasing awareness that all dimensions of ourselves—we are organic beings, after all—are interwoven. All impact each other, and are influenced by the world we inhabit, as well. So let’s unpack what the mixed evidence means from this research. It was conducted by researchers from UC San Diego, involved over 1,000 adults between the ages of 21 and over 100 years old, and is described here.

From the data, the researchers suggest that a transition occurs over time from the “usual uncertainties and turmoil of young adulthood… a period of considerable anxiety. You are desperately searching for meaning, but you haven't found it," as Jeste put it. Then, the researchers maintain, things change when you’re older, as life moves along towards a finite end, and you start thinking about what to do with your remaining life; what is the most meaningful.

In my view, this explanation is too linear. It reflects an earlier, more predictable era of life and society. It doesn’t match so much with the experiences of life through one’s decades in our current, more fluid, more changeable world.

It would be more accurate to seek an understanding of what the shifts that occur over time mean—what they arouse in your inner life. The latter is the source of what could become an enduring sense of meaning and purpose—if you tune into it and heed what it tells you along your life’s journey.

But our society and culture often inhibits that awakening. It does that by defining the most valuable and meaningful life to aim for as a good career, a relationship that lasts, friends, money and all that it buys for you. No question, these are very pleasurable and rewarding—to the extent you acquire them, that is. We live in a material world, after all, so you might believe that “meaning” and “purpose” are equivalent with all that you acquire. Until life tells you they’re not.

And that can occur because the material world is the external world. There, money, position, and recognition can't generate a sense of purpose or a meaningful life because they can be disrupted by unexpected change, loss, or disappointment. They may fade, take different forms, or unravel altogether—perhaps unexpectedly.

Constant impermanence is the reality of life. It can disrupt your external world and reach right down into your interior—your inner life. It may then cause you to question why you’re living, what you’re living for, and why it even matters. If you’ve been inattentive to your inner life, the consequences of that awakening can range from mild to severe.

Some are tuned into that awareness along the way; more centered on their inner life, regardless of age—contrary to the linear assumption of the current research. But many others awaken with a shock. For example, a man once said to me in a therapy session that he’d always defined the meaning of his life by what he’d acquired—his career, his family, and his investments. And now, having been thrown into upheaval by a simultaneous business failure and family crisis, he’d concluded that “life will never be the same.” True. But now, what defines his reason for being?

It also brings to mind a woman who suffered a personal loss that called everything into question about what the point of her life was, now, at this point. A more extreme kind of awakening, but not at all unknown, was expressed by the person who said to me, “I now realize I’ve pretty much wasted my life by being afraid to live it.”

Even sadder, in a way, was the 60-year-old with a successful career he never enjoyed, who liked to lament, sardonically, “I have no purpose.” I pointed out that he had made having “no purpose” into his purpose.

I think the findings of the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, make an important link between long-term physical health and living with a sense of purpose. But assuming that the quest is more located within in the “declining” years doesn’t match with people’s experiences from different generations in today’s nonlinear world.