We don’t need a groundbreaking new study to tell us that stress and anxiety levels are at all-time high right now. Given everything that’s going on — the rise of coronavirus and the drop of the stock market; the sudden shift to working and living under one roof 24/7; the loss of freedom to hug a good friend or hit the gym when we need to release a little tension release — it’s normal to feel on edge and at a loss for what to do to make things feel better for ourselves and loved ones.
As you likely know, excess stress and lack of social support isn’t exactly good for our health and immunity. Researchers have long known that social and psychological factors play a huge role in how our bodies function, including how our systems cope with and resist disease, how we age, and how long we live in general. But here’s the good news: Even in the midst of angst, we all retain something that’s proving to help buffer stress, protect us from disease, and promote healthy aging, and that’s having a personal sense of purpose in life.
New research published last year in the journal JAMA Network Open analyzed information from almost 7,000 adults aged 50 and older and found that those who reported a stronger sense of purpose were significantly less likely to die of any cause over the following four years than those with the lowest sense of purpose. That link remained strong even after accounting for a whole slew of factors known to impact longevity and health, including age, socioeconomic and education status, whether people smoked, their physical activity levels, and their body mass index (BMI).
Now, are we saying that tapping into your sense of purpose can protect you from coronavirus and a bear market? No, of course not. But we are saying that it could help you weather the current storm better, and empower you to help your loved ones and the community you care about do the same. Even better, it will continue to benefit your body and mind long after we overcome the pandemic.
What Exactly Does It Mean to Have a Sense of Purpose?
Most of us probably have at least an idea what having purpose means, but researchers have tried to home in on it more exactly, defining it in more specific, although somewhat jargon-y terms. The authors of the JAMA study, for example, used a framework that defined purpose as “a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals, promotes healthy behaviors, and gives meaning to life.”
At its core, though, think of a sense of purpose as the reason or reasons you wake up every day and go on to do whatever you do, and having a keen understanding that those reasons and you as a human are important. In other words, it’s about caring deeply about something and working for, or toward, some meaningful goal; you feel that your life, actions, goals, behaviors — everything — have value.
“Purpose is about asking why we’re on this planet,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. He goes on to explain that what constitutes purpose has changed significantly over time. Early in humans’ existence, our purpose was almost entirely to survive — to forage for food, avoid danger, and procreate, Dr. Rawls says. However, as societies developed and our very basic physical needs became easier and easier to meet and our lives became more comfortable, it freed up time and energy to begin thinking more broadly about our purpose.
“As a kid, your purpose then became to figure out the world and get an education; then, as adults, our sources of purpose tend to change,” Dr. Rawls says. Many people derive a sense of purpose from their jobs, for example. They are driven to learn, grow, and earn a comfortable living, moving up the career ladder, providing for their families, and achieving a certain degree of success, he says.
Research indeed shows that work tends to be a main source of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. Our families, and especially children, likewise can be a big source of purpose. We want to raise good humans and provide them with as many opportunities as possible. Community, religion, and our relationships are also common sources of purpose.
For many people, purpose is also closely tied to helping others. No matter what you feel gives your life purpose — be it work or family or something else — at the core, for a lot of people, it’s about doing things that you find meaningful but that also benefit someone else. You see what you do as a way to make a difference in someone’s life and/or make the world a better place, Dr. Rawls says.
The Link Between Purpose and Longevity
The JAMA study wasn’t the first to connect the dots between a purpose-filled life and health and longevity. A 2016 meta-analysis of 10 studies in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, encompassing data from 136,265 people, found a similar result: People with a greater sense of purpose in life were more likely to live longer, and they had a reduced risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack, and stroke.
Others have similarly suggested that a sense of meaning and purpose matter for well-being and longevity. It’s also been linked with contributing to more specific markers of health like better sleep and lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and disability.
On the surface, the link makes sense: The more you feel that your existence and role on this planet is important, has meaning, and serves a purpose, the more likely you are to stay engaged in life and to take care of yourself, because that’s how you continue pursuing and achieving these meaningful goals. That’s especially true if your purpose is one that’s at least partly about helping or supporting others, and not simply about amassing wealth or fame or comfort or fun for yourself.
Indeed, that was one finding of a recent study in the journal the Review of General Psychology. In it, the researchers found that having a greater sense of meaning in life was linked to more health-promoting behaviors. However there’s something else going on, too.
Research has found that a sense of purpose or meaning in life is a key component and likely even a major driver of overall well-being and life satisfaction. And several studies have linked both to physical markers of health and longevity, including lower rates of inflammation.
For example, well-being was associated with a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes, according to a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Another study of nearly 2,000 people found that those who rated high in feelings of life satisfaction had lower blood levels of C-reactive protein, a reliable marker of inflammation.
Some degree of inflammation is a necessary and normal part of your body’s immune response. It helps heal tissue, fight pathogens, and clear away cellular debris. But various things can cause inflammation to rage unchecked, which leads to the breakdown and damage of healthy tissues as well as mitochondrial burnout, which is the main catalyst for accelerating aging and disease, Dr. Rawls says.
Various factors trigger chronic and unchecked inflammation, including a diet loaded with processed fats, a lack of physical activity, and psychological stress. It seems logical, then, that a sense of purpose works to improve health and longevity, at least in part, by helping to buffer or even prevent stress so that it doesn’t wreak as much havoc.
How to Nurture a Greater Sense of Purpose + Channel Stress Into Something Good
While having a sense of purpose isn’t necessarily dependent on age, it’s common for people to feel more adrift as they get older. That’s especially true if they derived their sense of purpose from professional pursuits or children.
“After the kids are grown and you’ve retired, you still have a lot of good life ahead of you, along with, perhaps, money in the bank and a sense of security,” Dr. Rawls says. “But people often feel they’ve lost their purpose because the things they had focused on or worked towards for years aren’t there anymore.”
Indeed, research suggests one potential trigger of depression in people as they age is a curtailment in their daily activities. In other words, if your responsibilities start to disappear, if everything you did and worked towards begins to not need you as much anymore, it’s easy to feel that void. And if you’re feeling as though your body has naturally begun to slow down, or if you were unhealthy to begin with, it may be even harder to muster the energy and drive to find other things to fill that space — and your sense of purpose.
Regardless of your age, health status, or whatever else is going on in your personal or professional life, however, there are specific and targeted actions you can take when you begin to feel directionless. The following tips and exercises can help.
1. Volunteer, Perform Random Acts of Kindness, or Internalize How Your Work Benefits Others.
While you can find purpose in and from many different pursuits, many experts suggest that if you’re specifically searching for a life of purpose or a stronger sense of purpose — as well as longevity and better health, happiness, and a slew of other positive outcomes — start by helping others or at least realizing how your day-to-day work makes a difference in the lives of your fellow humans. While research is still in the process of connecting the dots from altruism to purpose specifically, one study, for example, found that the more people engaged in altruistic behavior, the more they reported that their life felt meaningful.
Other research in people over 50 found that volunteering was strongly associated with health-protecting behaviors like getting flu shots, mammograms and other preventative tests. People who regularly volunteered also spent fewer nights in the hospital during the 2-years study period. In an article in The Atlantic, the study authors said that further research suggested that the results were at least partially due to a stronger sense of purpose.
So think about what interests you or what specific knowledge you’ve gained in your life, and how you might use those things to help others. Dr. Rawls, for example, started Vital Plan after years of researching and experiencing firsthand the life-changing power of herbs and a healthy lifestyle, which ultimately helped him recover from debilitating Lyme Disease.
“I learned so much during that time, and felt this strong need to share it with other people, which feels good,” Dr. Rawls says. “And in the past 10 years of Vital Plan, I’ve touched more lives around the world than I did in my medical practice, and that’s extraordinary.”
2. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude.
Try keeping a gratitude journal, where at the end of each day, you write three things you are grateful for and why. Also try writing thank you notes, emails, or texts to people more regularly — not just to say thanks for gifts, but also for the pleasant conversations, helping hands, creativity, hard work, humor, or any other kind gestures you’ve witnessed, whether they were directed toward you or others.
According to Kendall Cotton Bronk, Ph.D., an expert on purpose in life and adolescents, reflecting on things and people you are grateful for may naturally cause you to start considering ways that you can help or give back to others, which, as discussed above, is a sure-fire way to feel a greater sense of purpose. One study backs it up: Researchers found that people who wrote notes of gratitude reported deeper feelings of meaning in life.
3. Nurture Friendships and Other Positive Relationships.
Just as our career or our children can give us goals and something to focus on and live for, so too can our close friends, spouse, family, community, and colleagues. Recalling a low point in his Lyme disease journey, Dr. Rawls didn’t feel like he was contributing much and felt like he was dragging his family down. “In that way, they were a big incentive for me to move forward and try to get things back on track.”
At our core, we’re social beings who have a primal need to connect with others, to love, and to feel loved and like we belong. So the more we nurture our relationships by giving and getting support and fostering a sense of belonging and mutual understanding, the more we have to live for and the more fulfilled we’re likely to be. That plays out in the scientific literature, too.
Research has found that if older adults maintain strong ties to family and friends, they’re more likely to not only feel a sense of meaning and purpose, they also stay healthier. On the flip side, a study of men over 60 found a link between having a low purpose in life and loneliness.
Close friends and family may also help you sniff out purpose in other ways: They offer opportunities for altruism as well as to help us learn about ourselves and what’s important to us. For example, hearing about your friends’ experiences, interests, and pursuits might pique your curiosity or interests, which you could follow all the way to a greater sense of purpose. Likewise, friends can be good sounding boards, helping us talk through what’s important to us, what we’re interested in, and how we might better use our strengths.
In addition, our friends and close contacts may offer unique insights into our purpose or help us crystalize or realize it. In an article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, for example, author Jeremy Adam Smith gave examples of how hearing appreciation, praise, or comments from others can lead people to have “aha moments” about or solidify a sense of purpose.
4. Reflect On and Savor What’s Important to You.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of life — raising kids, climbing the corporate ladder, paying bills, keeping a roof over your head, dealing with health challenges. But that doesn’t leave us much time or headspace to stop and savor what’s good, think about what we value in life, why we’re doing what we do, all we’ve achieved, what we want in the future, and what it all means.
In other words, you may not need to find a purpose or passion as much as you need to slow down long enough to see it’s been there all along and that you just need to connect with it better.
For example, in one study, patients with cancer were separated into one of two therapy groups. The first was a meaning-focused group that aimed to help patients reflect on topics such as “meaning before and after cancer,” “what made us who we are today,” and “things we have done and want to do in the future.” The other was a support-focused group where patients talked more about logistics — “coping with medical tests” and “communicating with providers.”
After 8 weeks, those in the meaning-focused group had higher scores of well-being and quality of life, plus reductions in depression, hopelessness, and physical symptoms. Most tellingly, members of the meaning-focused group had a greater feeling that they wanted to live versus a desire for a hastened death.
5. Try Meditation and Mindfulness Practices.
These days, meditation seems to be the go-to answer for just about everything that ails you. That’s because there’s solid science behind the natural Rx. Meditation has been proven to reduce stress and improve well-being and health, among a host of other benefits, including that it helps people shift their intentions and priorities away from simple pleasures and superficial well-being to a focus on deeper meaningfulness.
In that vein, researchers from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain randomly assigned 30 people to a three-month intensive meditation retreat, and another 30 people to a waitlist for the retreat. What they found was that, compared to the control group, the meditation group had increased ratings in purpose in life as well as increased telomerase activity — a sign of long-term cellular health that suggests improved longevity. Deeper analysis suggested that increases in purpose in life may have directly influenced positive telomerase activity.
6. Read About and Participate in the World
In his article for the Greater Good Science Center, Jeremy Adam Smith writes that books can open you up to others’ experiences and new ideas and serve as sources of inspiration that may help you find new purpose or connect with yours more deeply: “Find books that matter to you— and they might help you see what matters in your own life.”
Likewise, Dr. Rawls suggests one way to discover a new sense of purpose is through auditing new hobbies, activities, and pursuits — basically, to engage more in life. “So many people have become spectators: they watch television, watch sports, watch other people on social media,” he says. “There’s value in downtime and entertainment, of course, but they may not actually be doing anything that serves a true purpose beyond that comfort or pleasure, and after a while, it feels empty.”
On the other hand, by getting out there and doing things that interest you or that serve an important purpose to you or to others, you may stumble upon a new passion and purpose. And while we know that “getting out” might not be easy or even possible to do right now, it’s a perfect time to start exploring new ideas and making plans to try new things. That way, when the day comes that social distancing restrictions are lifted, you’re ready to seize it.
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