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Five Ways That Purpose Improves Your Health

Having a mission in life can benefit you emotionally and physically

by Ken Budd

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Living a meaningful life isn’t just good for your soul. It’s also good for your body and mind. People with a strong sense of purpose performed better on cognitive tests, felt healthier, lived longer and were less likely to be depressed than participants with low feelings of purpose, according to a 2015 study at Flinders University in Australia, which monitored the lives of 1,475 adults over 18 years. A growing body of research shows similar benefits.

“The medical community is starting to understand that our emotional and physical well-being impact each other,” says writer and coach Sue Fitzmaurice, author of the book Purpose. “We have a physical self and an emotional self; we also have an intellectual self and a spiritual self. These parts of ourselves don’t operate in isolation, so the happier we are, the healthier we are.”

Humans like to feel needed, and when we lack purpose, our lives become unfocused, which can increase stress. Negative thoughts trigger chemical reactions that hurt our health, from increasing adrenalin, which interferes with sleep, to increasing inflammation in the walls of blood vessels, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes, says Rachel Noble, a therapist with Advantia Health in Maryland. But when your mind is focused on a task, the opposite occurs.

“Mental engagement and physical activity release endorphins,” says Noble. “These positive chemicals can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure and increase your energy. Staying focused on a goal even helps keep your mind sharp.”

Whether it’s raising your kids or supporting a cause, purpose has purpose—and here are five ways it can boost your physical and mental health.

1. Improving your self-esteem

If you crave Facebook likes, it could be a sign that your life lacks meaning. People with a strong sense of purpose depend less on likes and retweets as a source of validation than those who lack a mission in life, according to a two-part Cornell University study. Researchers first measured the activity of nearly 250 Facebook users nationwide. Next, they asked 100 Cornell students to take a selfie and post it to a mock social media site. In both cases, those who reported having less purpose experienced a boost in self-esteem when their posts were liked, while those with a high sense of purpose saw no change. Purposeful people were aware that their posts received a positive response, but they didn’t need likes to feel good about themselves, says study co-author Anthony Burrow, Ph.D.

Burrow hypothesizes that people with purpose are more focused on future goals than short-term ego boosts. “Immediate rewards such as ‘likes’ likely figure less prominently in their calculations of how to feel,” he says.

2. Lowering your stress and anxiety levels

Much like the Flinders University research, a study in the Journal of Social Service Research found that having purpose can boost your mood. The study focused on 77 people who were undergoing treatment for substance abuse. Those who had “higher levels of existential purpose and meaning in life” were less likely to be depressed, researchers found.

“In my counseling practice, helping a client find purpose is often a primary focus,” says Noble. “Everyone needs a way to share their talents with the world and to connect to something outside of ourselves—whether it’s a job, volunteering or family responsibilities.” An added benefit: People with a clearly defined purpose often heal from illnesses faster and need less counseling, says Noble.

Purpose can also reduce stress. In another Cornell study led by Burrow, researchers measured people’s stress levels when they were a minority in an ethnically diverse crowd. One hundred and eleven participants completed a short questionnaire assessing their life’s purpose and then rode a train through the heart of Chicago. As the train car filled with people of different ethnicities, those who reported a strong sense of purpose were less stressed than those who did not. Burrow achieved similar results using a different test. One hundred and eighteen participants were split in half: One group wrote an essay about their life’s purpose, the other answered a question about movies. Those who wrote about purpose were less stressed about being a minority on the train than those who didn’t.

3. Protecting against Alzheimer’s disease

Having meaning and purpose in life can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment, according to a study from the Rush University Medical Center. Researchers asked 951 dementia-free older adults how much they agreed with 10 statements such as “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life” or, conversely, “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” Over an average of four years, those who scored high on the purpose questionnaire were more than twice as likely to remain Alzheimer’s-free.

“Purpose may enhance the efficiency of neural connections, thereby making the brain a better processor,” says Patricia Boyle, a co-author of the study and associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center.

In another study, the same researchers found that people with a high sense of purpose showed better cognition—even as the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s accumulated in their brains—than those with less purpose.

“Almost all older persons have some evidence of Alzheimer's-type changes in their brains,” says Boyle. “People with greater purpose can tolerate those changes better and function at a higher cognitive level than those with less purpose.”

4. Cutting your risk of stroke

A strong sense of purpose reduced the likelihood of strokes by around 50 percent in a study of 453 older adults led by Boyle, published in the journal Stroke. Purpose may reduce stroke risk by promoting healthy lifestyles, and previous studies suggest a link between purpose and lower cardiovascular disease risk.

“People who are very purposeful and engaged in activities that are meaningful to them exercise their brains in different ways, making their whole brain stronger,” Boyle told AARP’s “Having that sense of purpose appears to provide a protective buffer against vascular changes in the brain.” The reason? Purposeful people are less stressed, which can lower blood pressure and reduce the inflammation that can lead to stroke.

Research from Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt found that a strong sense of purpose reduced participants’ risk of heart attack, stroke, coronary artery bypass surgery or a cardiac stenting procedure by 19 percent. It also slashed the odds of death from all causes by 23 percent.

”Without purpose, life can feel meaningless—and from there it’s not a big step to depression and ill-health.”

Sue Fitzmaurice, author of the book Purpose

5. Increasing your longevity

In a study published by Psychological Science, people with purpose lived longer than those who didn’t. The study examined data from 6,000 participants in the Midlife in the United States study, which examines how behavioral, psychological and social factors can affect health and well-being. During a 14-year follow-up period, the roughly 6 percent of participants who died reported having less purpose in life than those who lived.

A study of more than 9,000 English people found similar results. The participants’ average age was 65, and during an 8.5-year follow-up, 9 percent of those in the highest well-being category had died, compared to 29 percent in the lowest category, researchers at University College London, Princeton University and Stony Brook University found. Research from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center also showed lower mortality rates among people with a high sense of purpose. This suggests, according to Boyle, that finding meaning from life’s experiences and focusing on goals contribute to successful aging. Or, to put it another way, when life has meaning, we live longer and live better.

Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, a web series that will debut in 2017.