How Finding Your Purpose Can Boost Your Health

It’s never too late to discover your purpose in life, and it may even help you live longer.

woman working on laptop

Medically reviewed in March 2022

Updated on March 18, 2022

Amid the daily grind—whether that means getting to and from work, paying bills, or managing a busy household—it can be easy to lose sight of your larger goals and your sense of mission in life. And frankly, sometimes merely getting through the day is an achievement in itself.

But there are benefits to making time on a regular basis to remember the big picture and to help define and pursue your purpose.

Living with purpose for longevity
Research has shown that having a sense of purpose in life may actually help you live longer.

People with a greater sense of purpose had lower mortality rates—regardless of race, age, and employment status—according to a 2014 study published in Psychological Science that tracked more than 7,000 people over the course of 14 years. The authors reported that a sense of purpose is linked to longevity in all people, young and old, which suggests that setting goals early in life can help set the stage for greater well-being in middle age and beyond.

Another study published in 2019 in JAMA Network Open that looked at nearly 7,000 people older than 50 years of age similarly found that those with the strongest sense of life purpose had the lowest mortality rates.

Why might this be the case?

The authors of the JAMA study speculated that having a stronger sense of well-being, which is related to living with purpose, may be associated with decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Lower levels of inflammation, in turn, may be related to lower risk of chronic disease.

A stronger sense of purpose may also be linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as proteins called cytokines that promote inflammation in the body. While findings like these are compelling, more research is needed to determine possible direct links between purpose and actual health outcomes related to inflammation.

How purpose syncs to other dimensions of health
Other research has examined the specific ways in which a sense of purpose may improve your health.      

Healthier living: Older adults who spend time doing activities they find meaningful are healthier, physically and mentally, according to a January 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). About 7,300 adults in the UK aged 50 and older were asked to rate how worthwhile they felt their daily activities were, on a scale of 1 through 10.

At the start of the study and when assessed four years later, adults who saw the most meaning in their lives were at a lower risk for depression, chronic pain, obesity, and developing new diseases. They were also more likely to have stronger personal relationships, better mental health, and more money. 

More meaningful daily activities were also linked to healthier lifestyles, which included more physical activity, diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and better sleep. 

Despite the health benefits, the study did not show that seeking out meaningful activities caused the health benefits. In fact, researchers noted that it could work in reverse: Being healthier may make people more likely to take up worthwhile pursuits or feel that what they do is meaningful.

Improved heart health: One Japanese study published in 2008 in the Journal of Epidemiology indicated that men who have a strong sense of purpose had a lower risk of death from stroke, heart disease, and all causes compared to those with a low sense of purpose. A review of 10 studies published in 2016 in Psychosomatic Medicine found that having a high sense of life purpose was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events.

A healthier brain: A sense of purpose may protect your brain from disease. One seven-year study published in 2010 in Archives of General Psychiatry of more than 900 older adults found that people with a low sense of purpose were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those with a strong sense of purpose. The same study suggested that those with a strong sense of purpose experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline and a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Better sleep: People with a sense of purpose have better sleep quality, suggests the results from a July 2017 study published in Sleep Science and Practice. What’s more, of the more than 800 participants in the study, having a greater sense of life purpose was associated with lower risks of experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

How to find your purpose
Each person’s sense of purpose is different based on factors including their life experience and situation, goals, and personality. Some people may be driven by a desire to raise a healthy family, to help others, to earn professional success, create art, or live a quiet, contemplative life.

Whatever your goals are, there are some fundamental steps that can help you develop and hone your purpose. The following tips are derived from the lifestyles of some of the world’s longest- and healthiest-living people who live in regions known as Blue Zones:

  • Think honestly about what you love to do.
  • Decide what skills or activities you’re best at.
  • Determine what you want your life’s legacy to be.
  • Practice meditation and self-reflection to help you focus your sense of purpose.
  • Set specific goals to accomplish.
  • Remember that your purpose can change with time.

Finding your purpose is often the easy part. Acting on your intention day in and day out can be more difficult. Remember that the benefits of having a sense of purpose, for both mind and body, are worth the effort. Sometimes having a daily verbal or written reminder—or even a powerful mantra you recite on a regular basis—can help propel you to fulfill your sense of purpose.

Article sources open article sources

Hill PL, Turiano NA. Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(7):1482-1486.
Steptoe A, Deaton A, Stone AA. Psychological wellbeing, health, and aging. Lancet. 2015;385(9968):640-648.
Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194270.
Steptoe A, Fancourt D. Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2019;116(4):1207-1212.
Koizumi M, Ito H, Kaneko Y, Motohashi Y. Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. J Epidemiol. 2008;18(5):191-196.
Cohen R, Bavishi C, Rozanski A. Purpose in Life and Its Relationship to All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Meta-Analysis. Psychosom Med. 2016;78(2):122-133.
Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(3):304-310.
Turner AD, Smith CE, Ong JC. Is purpose in life associated with less sleep disturbance in older adults? Sleep Science Practice. 2017;1(1):14.

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