While we may all have different perspectives of what “purpose in life” means, most any definition would include having a sense of meaningfulness and direction and a feeling that life is worth living. Purpose is a psychological tendency to draw meaning from life’s experiences. It embraces a sense of intentionality and goal directedness — inner directedness — that becomes a compass to guide our behavior.
Distilled to its purest essence, purpose could perhaps be thought of as the reason for our existence.
Living purposefully predicts a longer life.
Does the power of purpose vary over time, such as throughout different developmental stages of our lives or after important life transitions? It’s easy to assume that a sense of purpose might help protect older adults more than younger ones because, for example, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks anyway, and those facing retirement may have lost work as a central daily organizing event.
But interestingly, a study of 6000 participants at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that setting a direction and overarching goals for what you want to achieve in life can actually help you live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose (Hill & Turiano, 2014). Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across an individual’s entire lifespan, demonstrating the same benefits for younger, middle-aged, and older individuals.
Over the 14-year follow-up period, the 569 participants who died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relationships than did the survivors.
It’s also possible, of course, that leading more purposeful lives makes us more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles in general, which, in turn, ultimately boosts longevity.
Purpose may protect your heart.
Developing and refining your sense of purpose not only improves psychological health and well-being, but according to recent studies, may also protect heart health and potentially save your life.
A Mount Sinai meta-review of 10 studies that combined data from more than 137,000 participants found that a high sense of purpose in life was associated with a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes and a 19 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular problems (such as heart attack, stroke, coronary artery bypass surgery, and cardiac stenting procedures) (Cohen et al., 2015).
Purpose may ward off Alzheimer’s disease
People who report having greater purpose in their lives appear less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or even its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, according to a recent study of 951 older adults (Boyle et al., 2010). Purpose in life was measured by statements such as: “I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future” and “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.”
Over a period of four to seven years, 155 (9%) of the participants with a lower sense of purpose developed Alzheimer’s. Those whose purpose in life scores fell in the 90th percentile were more than twice as likely (2.4) to remain free of Alzheimer’s disease than those in the 10th percentile.
While this study didn’t establish the biological basis of this association, researchers speculated that it may result from the positive effects that purpose of life has on immune function and blood vessel health.
Certainly these studies suggest that we should all ask the critical question: Do I have a sense of purpose in my life? After all, “purpose in life” is a modifiable factor.