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August 04, 2022

A sense of purpose can be hard to find, but it's linked to many health benefits

Research suggests it sparks healthy behaviors and reduces the risk of early death, depression and dementia

Wellness Motivation
Sense of purpose Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Having a sense of purpose can give meaning to the more mundane aspects of life while also providing physical and mental health benefits.

It can be easy to feel as if the daily grind is a never-ending treadmill of work and family responsibilities without any clear purpose. Many people go through the motions without feeling any sense of accomplishment. 

Having a sense of purpose, or specific life goals, can give meaning to the more mundane aspects of life, psychologists say, while also providing physical and mental health benefits. 

Alan Rozanski, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who studies the relationship between life purpose and physical health, told NPR that a life purpose is a basic psychological need – just like sleep, food and water are basic physical needs.

"The need for meaning and purpose is No. 1," he said. "It's the deepest driver of well-being there is."

A sense of purpose is the extent that a person feels their life has meaning. The life choices of people with a sense of purpose are motivated by their values and goals. These values and goals vary from person to person, but people most commonly cite family and relationships, community, helping others, learning new skills and hobbies.

Only about 25% of U.S. adults report knowing what makes their lives meaningful, research shows. But finding one is linked to an array of health benefits.

What the science says

A 2021 study found a higher sense of purpose is linked to better health behaviors and a reduced risk of death, depression and loneliness. The findings suggest that improving a sense of purpose could be a valuable preventive health measure.

Another study, published in 2020, found people with a greater sense of purpose were less likely to develop a chronic health condition or die prematurely. They also were less likely to be physically inactive, have sleep problems or an unhealthy body mass index.

Other research has found that a sense of purpose can reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke and dementia. And a 2010 study found that the people live longer if they have strong senses of purpose and control, and feel that what they do is worthwhile. 

Scientists have not been able to determine exactly how a sense of purpose can improves health, but they theorize that it makes people more protective of their health. The idea is that people eat healthier, sleep better, exercise more and adopt other preventive measures so poor health doesn't keep prevent them from reaching their goals.

A sense of purpose also is believed to reduce inflammation caused by chronic stress. A constant state of inflammation in the body increases the risk of heart disease and other medical conditions. Some studies have suggested that people with a higher sense of purpose in their lives are able to handle stress in healthier ways so they are not continually overwhelmed by it. This may be the result of them placing greater focus on the overarching goals in their lives, researchers say. 

Finding a sense of purpose

While some people find a clear sense of purpose early in life, others never really have that "aha" moment. If you often find yourself rudderless in a sea of uncertainty, there are ways uncover more meaning in your life.

Here are some suggestions compiled from Verywell mind, Greater Good Magazine, BetterUp and Harvard Health:

• Volunteer or donate money: Researchers have found that altruistic behaviors, including giving to causes, provides a stronger sense of purpose.

• Explore your passions and interests. The things you enjoy doing, or talking about, may give you some insight into what gives you purpose in life.

• Ask others. People often struggle to identify their own skills and the things that bring them passion. Family and friends can provide insight into what makes you tick. 

• Read a lot. Not only does reading connect you to people, places and times you would not otherwise know, it can lead to a better understanding of yourself, including your values, and inspire you to follow a certain path. 

Journalist Michael Stoll told Greater Good Magazine that reading the "social responsibility theory of journalism" in college helped shape the type of journalist he wanted to be. He later launched The San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit news agency.

• Practice gratitude. Studies show that people who are able to show gratitude for the good things in their lives are more likely to want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

• Make sense out of negative, painful experiences by helping others who are suffering. Some people who go through personal tragedies find meaning by helping others in similar circumstances. For example, parents who lose children to illness might start their own foundations to help other families with sick children.

• Be a part of a community. Being an active member of a community that shares your passions, interests and values can help you feel connected to others and less isolated. Working toward a common goal can bring meaning to your days.

It does not matter what your life purpose is, just that you have one, experts say. They also stress that your sense of purpose may change as you transition into different phases of your life. Remember, a sense of purpose is a journey, not a destination. 

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