“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
– Helen Keller
Helen Keller was a wise woman, ahead of her time. Today, researchers are confirming her wisdom regarding the value of a purpose-driven life. It turns out that it not only helps you enjoy life more, it helps you live longer.
Study after study is revealing that you can lower your risk of dementia, heart disease, stroke, and more, by simply asking yourself about the purpose and meaning in your days, rather than by thinking about whether you are happy.
Doing good vs. feeling good
Mark Twain wrote, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Apparently, finding purpose in helping others is also the best way to remain healthy throughout your lifespan.
We now know that a sense of purpose, known as eudaimonic well-being, is directly linked to physical health and longevity. Volunteering is one of the best ways to gain this sense of purpose.
Experience Corps is a nationwide program that trains and engages adults over 55 as volunteer reading tutors with young students.
In 2009, two independent studies looked at groups of Experience Corps volunteers and documented the positive health changes they experienced.
Researchers at Washington University’s Center for Social Development found that, compared with adults of similar age and demographics, Experience Corps volunteers:
- Reported improvements in mobility, stamina, and flexibility
- Had larger social networks, heading off the loneliness that can lead to Alzheimer’s, heart disease and hypertension
- Reported significantly less age-related decline in general
A separate study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine followed Experience Corps tutors over age 60 who had previously doubled their level of physical activity after just four to eight months of volunteering.
The new study found that this same group of tutors continued those increased activity levels for at least three years.
Having purpose means better sleep and a healthier heart
More recent findings point to specific positive health trends in adults who reported having a sense of purpose to their days.
In early 2016, two researchers from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine concluded that individuals with a high sense of purpose in life have a reduced risk of heart attacks, as well as being at lower risk for early death in general.
And, just last year (2017), three researchers from the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University looked at the possible connection between lack of purpose and sleep disturbance.
They found support for their hypothesis that a higher level of meaning and purpose in life is related to better sleep, and may prevent symptoms of sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, conditions that disrupt sleep.
How to find meaning in your days
Let’s distinguish between happiness and purpose.
Happiness is a transitory state. It is highly dependent upon the activity or surroundings of the moment, and on what you believe about them.
Purpose, on the other hand, can be cultivated and developed. It is outward-facing, about other people. It connects you to the world at large.
Here are four questions to ask yourself daily as you work to cultivate and maintain a sense of purpose in your life.
- What am I good at doing? What work or activities come easy to you? What things have you been complemented for consistently as doing better than others?
- What do I enjoy doing? What makes you lose track of time while you’re doing it? What would you do every day, even if you didn’t get paid to do it?
- What feels most useful? How does, or did, your work help others, or a larger cause?
- What makes me feel I’m moving forward? What do you want to learn to do? How could you apply it to reach your goals, or to help others?
As you consider these questions, keep a journal of your answers. You’ll be surprised at how, gradually, themes will develop. These insights can guide you toward your next steps to feeling more engaged and more purpose-driven as you go through your days.
And, don’t be surprised if a big dose of happiness comes along as a bonus!
- Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One — The New York Times
- Is purpose in life associated with less sleep disturbance in older adults? — Sleep Science and Practice
- Purpose in Life and Its Relationship to All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Meta-Analysis — Psychosomatic Medicine
- Researchers Find Sustained Improvement in Health in Experience Corps Tutors Over 55 — Washington University in St. Louis