Having a purpose in life

Is having something to live for good for our health? Does having a purpose in life help us live longer? What if we feel we don’t have a sense of purpose?

What does ‘having a purpose’ mean?

A group of researchers in the USA explain it as a sense that life has meaning and direction and that one’s goals and potential are being achieved or are achievable.

As the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky identified, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov: The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for. 

Might a sense of purpose help us live longer?

People with a purpose in life tend to live longer. That’s the verdict of a 2014 longitudinal study of over 6,000 Americans.

Purpose in life was self-reported using responses to the statements: ‘some people wander aimlessly through life but I am not one of them’,  ‘I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future’ and ‘I sometimes feel as I’ve done all there is to do in life’. The researchers also measured other relevant psychosocial variables. Interestingly, the 569 participants who died during the 14-year study had an overall lower self-reported purpose in life than the participants who survived. The study concluded that people with a greater sense of purpose may live longer than others, regardless of age, of whether or not they are retired and of other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions.

“These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” said lead researcher Patrick Hill.

A review of ten studies published in 2016 came to similar conclusions. This was based on studies involving 136,265 participants. The reviewers concluded, "Possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events."  

Does having a purpose in life help with health?

Might having a purpose in life reduce the risk of stroke among older adults? That’s what a four-year longitudinal study looked at in America. Over 6,700 older adults who had never before had a stroke had their purpose in life measured at the start of the study. After four years, there was a lower risk of stroke for those who had reported a greater purpose in life. This was true even after accounting for factors such as age, gender, race, education, wealth, health and psychological wellbeing.

A 2013 review included having a purpose in life as an indicator of positive psychological well-being. It found that higher positive psychological well-being protects against cardiovascular ill health such as coronary heart disease or strokes.  The review defined ‘having life purpose’ as having goals and finding meaning in experiences.

A study with over 7,000 participants was reported in 2014. It found that having a purpose in life was, 'linked with greater use of preventative health services and also fewer nights spent hospitalized.'

Maintaining a sense of purpose after retirement

Retirement can be a time when some people start to lose their sense of purpose. However, volunteering can sometimes help renew this sense of purpose and potentially bring health benefits. That was the experience of Experience Corps volunteers who tutored school children in the US. They reported improvements in mental health and physical functioning and maintained their overall health longer. Follow up research has even suggested this might help protect parts of the brain vulnerable to dementia. 

How can I develop a purpose in life?

This isn’t an area that seems to have been researched yet, so what follows is anecdotal rather than evidence based. However, some people report they have found the following approaches helpful:

1. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you love to do, that you would do even if you don’t get paid to do it?
  • What do other people say you’re really good at?
  • What do I have to contribute to the world?
  • What is the one thing you want to experience, or do, or accomplish, before you die, so that on your last day on earth you feel satisfied and have no regrets?
  • What are my core beliefs, morals and principles?

2. Life Coaching may help - although it hasn’t been subject to rigorous research and the quality of life coaches may vary.

3. Set goals and targets for yourself – but don’t let them consume you. Learn from them. What do the outcomes show you about your inner self and about what you want in life? 

You may find purpose in life isn’t about being preoccupied with narrow self interest – but using your mental and creative energies to serve something larger than yourself. As Robert Kennedy put it, ‘The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to make things better.’ 

Serena Sharma October 2014, Reviewed and updated by Charlotte Christopherson November 2016, Next review due October 2019 

Man’s search for meaning

The ideas of psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl

The value of volunteering

Do-It  

Local Volunteer Centres 

Community Service Volunteers (CSV) 

REACH (Skilled Volunteers) 

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)  

Your local hospital, foodbank or charity shops may also need volunteers.