A New Year with its fresh blank slate beckons. This will be the year we go to the gym regularly, become vegetarian, stop smoking or drinking, we say, resolutions that may or may not stick. However, what if the path to a longer, healthier life does not lie at the gym or in the fridge at all, but in a higher calling?
People with a greater sense of purpose tend to engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors, ranging from eating their veggies, to getting more exercise and even flossing their teeth (a good proxy for other healthy behaviors), according to a new study out of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
This all sounds pretty good — who doesn’t want a painless and inexpensive way to eat healthier and improve dental hygiene. But what, exactly, is purpose? According to Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University and the lead author on the study, purpose is a variable concept. It is the “notion that you have daily activities you find meaningful or engaging and that give you direction for your life, reasons to continue going,” he told me.
Another way to think of this is as “a central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning,” according to a 2009 study in the Review of General Psychology. That study’s authors posit that while purpose can be closely aligned with one’s identity or sense of self, it can also be something you discover later in life. That’s good news for those of us who are trying to change bad habits that may feel hopelessly entrenched.
Even better, a sense of purpose is also linked to longer life. Psychotherapist Amy Morin, a lecturer at Northwestern University and author of the book, "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do," points to a 2014 study in the journal Psychological Science that suggested people who already have this motivated state of mind outlived their peers. “People who felt like their lives had meaning had a fifteen percent lower risk of death, compared to those who felt aimless,” Morin told me.
Feeling that your life is worth living also brings mental health benefits in a kind of positive feedback loop.
Additionally, a 2010 study in Japan found that people who experienced “ikigai”— a concept that can be loosely translated as a life worth living — lived longer than other subjects, had lower rates of cardiovascular disease and were less likely to die from other factors when compared to people who did not have a sense of purpose.
People who enjoy positive well-being are also shown to have lower cortisol output, Northwestern’s Morin explains, which plays a role in healthy brain function and immune system regulation: “Feeling good can reduce health ailments. People who feel physically healthier may be more motivated to maintain their health.”
Feeling that your life is worth living also brings with it mental health benefits in a kind of positive feedback loop. Morin finds both in the research and in her own therapy practice that “people who have a sense of purpose have more resilience. They bounce back from setbacks faster and are motivated to get back to doing the things that give their lives meaning.”
These people feel as though they have some control over their lives, which might play into the belief that seeing a doctor or exercising makes a difference in their health. “People who wander aimlessly through life may feel as though their choices don’t really matter,” she notes, “because they don’t believe they have the power to make a difference.”
But if you are among the aimlessly wandering, or don’t feel connected to this deeper meaning, how can you rekindle or cultivate it?
“People who wander aimlessly through life may feel as though their choices don’t really matter."
Kori Novak, a California-based researcher at The Oxford Research Center in Humanities and a professor at Concordia University in Nebraska, suggests searching for your purpose can be as simple as “looking outside, in [your] neighborhood, gardens, places of worship, grocery stories or in front of [your] house.” In other words, purpose does not have to be a world-changing, epic desire to fix or soothe the ills of humanity, but rather something that fulfills you on a personal level, in your own community.
“Everyone has a purpose,” Novak insists. Look to your childhood interests, or the most recent thing that brought you joy or meaning.
Morin echoes this sentiment and encourages some self-reflection on what has created a sense of meaning in your life in recent years. “Simple every day activities may help someone feel as though their life has meaning. A chef may find their purpose is creating delicious food that helps people feel happy, or a hairdresser may find their purpose is helping others feel beautiful.”
What gives you meaning can change throughout your lifespan, too, though there are benefits to developing it early. “Studies show adolescents and young adults who have clear goals have higher levels of well being later in life,” Morin says.
And older adults, particularly after retirement, who volunteer “in a sustained way tend to have better health and live longer,” says Parissa Ballard, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. She says that researchers theorize that, “Volunteering gives older adults a sense of purpose.”
If you still haven’t found your purpose today, Morin says that it’s never too late. So rather than cashing in on a new gym membership, consider a little quiet time with yourself, tuning in to the things that make you feel like getting out of the bed in the morning. You may be closer to your purpose than you even realized.
Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of 7 books. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, DAME, Quartz, New York Magazine, Scientific American and many more. Follow her @JordanRosenfeld.