Many studies have been done on psychosocial factors and their impact on our health and even how long we live. More recently some of these have been able to show that having a sense of purpose can have many health benefits from lowering stress to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease cancer and even living longer and it doesn’t matter how old you are. The benefits of perceiving and living a life directed toward a broader purpose are widespread and feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, no matter what your age.
At a biological level having a sense of purpose has been shown to be associated with more positive body biochemistry and lower cortisol (stress) levels and lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines 1, the chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and chronic disease which represents one possible mechanism through which purpose in life influences mortality.
Having a purpose in life provides individuals with a sense of direction and goals for the future, as well as a marker of flourishing and a life well-lived. A strong sense of purpose buffers us from the storms of life. It like the roots of a tree, keeping us steady and grounded even in stormy weather. It provides us with a greater sense of controlling our direction in life, are more motivated and may even feel inspired. However, our sense of purpose is not to make money it has to be directed at something greater than yourself.
In research among teens and young adults having a sense of purpose enabled them to look beyond themselves to appreciate their role in the world and to build the psychological resilience necessary to overcome adversity. There is evidence that focusing on personally meaningful and valued goals can buffer the negative effects of stress by allowing individuals to reinforce a sense of who they are and that creating opportunities for individuals to cultivate a sense of purpose is important as we move forward as a society2.
Having a high sense of purpose in life has also been associated with lower risk of heart disease and stroke. In a review of 10 relevant studies with the data of more than 137,000 people they defined purpose in life as a sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worth living. Previous research has linked purpose to psychological health and well-being and this study found that a high sense of purpose is associated with a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes and a 19 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, or the need for coronary artery bypass surgery or a cardiac stenting procedure. This is better than any drug and has multiple other benefits.
Previous studies have suggested that finding a purpose in life lowers risk of mortality above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity. Purposeful adults tend to outlive their peers and experience a diminished risk for both cognitive decline and disability in older adulthood. Moreover, having a purpose in life appears to lead to unique health benefits relative to other aspects of psychological well-being, such as having positive relations with others. In this study of 749 people with an average age of 60 found that the participants’ sense of purpose was positively associated with multiple positive health qualities including vigorous and moderate activity, vegetable intake, flossing, and sleep quality 3.
In another study of 6985 adults between the ages of 51 to 61 and a follow up for 14 years life purpose was significantly associated with all-cause mortality. Those with the strongest sense of purpose almost 2 and a half times more likely to be alive comparing those in the lowest life purpose category. Particularly compelling was the reduction in deaths from heart, circulatory, and blood conditions. Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account. These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity 4.
These findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.
So what is your sense of purpose?
Write it down
1 Ryff CD, Singer BH, Dienberg Love G. Positive health: connecting well-being with biology. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004;359(1449):1383-1394.
2 A. L. Burrow, P. L. Hill. Derailed by Diversity? Purpose Buffers the Relationship Between Ethnic Composition on Trains and Passenger Negative Mood. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0146167213499377
4 . P. L. Hill, N. A. Turiano. Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614531799