Trying to figure out the meaning of life, can quickly send us into an existential tailspin (ask any existentialist philosopher- it might be the only thing they’d actually all agree on). Yet new research  suggests that finding meaning in our lives, aka having a sense of purpose, may be foundational to improving our overall health and wellbeing. So whether our raison d'etre is as ambitious as wanting to take on climate change, or as noble as wanting to care for others, living life with intention can have the welcome side-effect of making us feel better.
To help us explore the connection between purposefulness and wellbeing, Beingwell’s resident expert Life Coach Grace McMahon, is on hand and equipped with some expert advice on how to cultivate purpose.
Does a good life = a happy & purposeful life?
When we think about what makes a good life, we often confuse ‘good’ with it’s rare and fleeting cousin ‘happy’. Isn’t it ironic then (thanks Alanis), that the research  shows the pursuit of happiness can actually make us more miserable? As Emily Esfahani explains in her compelling Ted Talk, aspiring to live a meaningful life, that is - to care about and develop something beyond yourself, may, indirectly, lead us to living happier lives (think George from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’). So it’s good news then, that a growing body of research suggests that living with purpose can also improve our health and wellbeing- (which also makes a lot of sense when we think about the known connection between happiness and improved wellbeing).
The connection between purpose and wellbeing
As much as we enjoy relaxing on the beach, and enjoy indulging in the daydream of quitting our office jobs to sell seashells on the seashore (anyone…? No, just me), research shows that work (whatever that work-role is for you) is instrumental to giving us a sense of purpose. In fact, for those facing unemployment, research  shows that a lack of purpose is one of the key reasons people list as contributing to a decline in their mental health. After a year of restrictions, feeling purposeless is a pretty widespread sentiment that few have been spared of suffering through. We understand, then, that lacking purpose can be pretty damaging to our wellbeing, but on the flip side, how can having a purpose contribute to our wellbeing?
A purposeful life could equal a longer life
Having a strong sense of purpose is linked to a good heart (and no not in the sense of the tin man in The Wizard of Oz). A study undertaken by preventative cardiologist Dr Cohen MD, medical director of University Medical Practice Associates at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City - concluded that people with a high sense of purpose had a lower risk of developing a range of heart conditions (stroke, heart attack and coronary artery disease) compared to those with a low sense of purpose.
A sense of purpose enables us to develop greater emotional resilience
We understand that having a sense of purpose can help to keep us motivated, but research shows it can also help us to recover from negative experiences more quickly. One study  found that those with a sense of purpose were able to effectively manage stress by reframing negative experiences as minor setbacks rather than complete derailments when working towards realising something beyond themselves.
Purpose could protect us against cognitive decline
According to neuropsychologist Patricia A. Boyle, at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center purpose;
“...makes your brain stronger and more resistant to the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s.”
Findings from the participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project  confirmed this to be the case - with the research highlighting that those with a strong sense of purpose were 29% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment and 2.3% less likely to have microscopic blood vessel infarcts that damage brain tissue.
Ok, so we get it - purpose is pretty damn important for our overall wellbeing - but how do we go about developing a sense of purpose, particularly when we’re feeling a bit aimless (thanks for that covid)?
Don’t get distracted by what other people are doing!
As unique individuals, the things that motivate us are likely to be as numerous and varied as our personalities (despite what Thoreau would have us believe). For some, smashing our way up the career ladder might feel purposeful, but for others we might gain a greater sense of purpose through building meaningful relationships, perhaps starting a family or even just setting the intention to enjoy each day as it comes.
However we choose to define it, having purpose gives a shape to our lives and keeps us moving forward.
Create a beliefs inventory
Reflect on what you hold to be true in life, what resonates with you, and what you value - whether it’s specific qualities you look for in relationships (of any kind), what makes you feel happy in darker moments, or even that having a career makes you successful. Beliefs are what shape our worlds for ourselves - and they don’t always mesh with those of others, but that’s ok and part of navigating life. By having clarity as to what our beliefs are, it’s easier to set intentions and work towards a purpose aligned with them.
Creating inventories, making notes, jotting down ideas (whatever works for you) holds us accountable and solidifies our beliefs for ourselves, making it more likely that we’ll stick with them, as well as manifest them in our realities - so they're not just something that crossed our mind once upon a time, they are real!
Do some soul searching
We know it can sound airy-fairy, but we mean think, really think about times that you’ve been tested in the past - like a break-up, an embarrassing moment or even a job rejection. Not everyone lives by the motto ‘everything happens for a reason’ but acknowledging that sometimes, the worst moments in our life helped us to get to where we are now, can be a useful way of making sense of our life path! Thinking this way can help us see the good in misfortune (even though it’s still rubbish, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just click our fingers and everything works out the way we hoped. Every single time.) It’s not for everyone though so if you’re reading thinking 'codswallop' - that’s cool, try our other tips to help create a sense of purpose in your life.
Final thoughts: The research shows that finding and pursuing a purpose is important for our wellbeing - how we define our purpose is up to us (eek!) - but staying true to ourselves, reflecting on our values and journaling can help us find our way!
Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years (2019). JAMA.
Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness (2018). Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Employment is vital for maintaining good mental health (2012). Mental Health Foundation.
Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli (2013) PLoS One.
Purpose in Life and Its Relationship to All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Meta-Analysis (2016). Psychosomatic Medicine.