Find Your Sense of Purpose

Find Your Sense of Purpose

Got a great reason to jump out of bed in the morning? Only 37% of North Americans say they do, according to a recent Gallup Poll. But a study might motivate you to find your sense of purpose: Turns out having a mission in life can help you become healthier and live longer.

When researchers from Mount Sinai Health System in New York City reviewed the results of 10 studies involving more than 137,000 people, they found that those with “a sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worth living” were 19% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or to need a cardiac bypass or stents to open up clogged arteries. And overall, those leading purpose-driven lives were 23% less likely to die prematurely.

Why does a sense of purpose make you healthier?
If you’re fired-up with a passion for living -- whether it comes from coaching Little League baseball, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, playing your tuba for community groups, or being a good parent -- you’re more likely to keep up with health screenings, eat healthily and get exercise. Plus, you get these additional health benefits, according to the Mount Sinai study:

Less inflammation: Recent research has shown that people with a strong sense of purpose also had lower levels of inflammatory chemicals and stress hormones. The reason goes deep: Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that having a sense of purpose switches on healthier genes. Blood tests of 80 people revealed that those who felt happy when doing good for others had less activity in genes that boost inflammation. Those less generous, more short-sighted and concerned with their own pleasure, had more activity in pro-inflammatory genes, as well as lower activity in antiviral and antibody genes, which help protect against viral infections. As one of the researchers noted, “We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but… at the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose."

Sharper mental powers: A strong sense of purpose could keep your brain sharper, longer. Scientists from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center autopsied the brains of 246 older adults. They found the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease in those who had lived with a sense of purpose and those who didn’t. But when they looked back at thinking tests performed while the volunteers were living, they discovered a profound difference: People with a strong sense of purpose had a 30% lower rate of decline in thinking skills and memory.

Greater independence as you age. A sense of purpose may have a bonus for your encore years, especially if you’ve got big plans for retirement. In the on-going Rush University study, older people with a strong sense of purpose were 30% less likely to have trouble with basic necessities like getting dressed and taking a shower, 44% less likely to have trouble with managing their money, shopping, taking care of their home and getting around town and 39% less likely to have difficulty walking distances, going up and down stairs and doing heavy housework.

So how’s your sense of purpose?
Do you feel driven by passion and meaning? If not, make time to explore the world, try new things, experiment, get together with friends and family to see what makes you feel like a million bucks. Spend some time thinking about what really matters to you, what you’d like most to contribute to the world because you think it’s important, and that you’d love to do. It’s one of the essential 7 Do-Over Deeds in Dr. Mike’s book, This Is Your Do-Over. You’ll make the world -- and your own mind and body -- a better place. 

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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