In the “all things are connected” department, a large-scale longitudinal study has found that people who having a sense of purpose live longer. The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that those who had died over the course of the study had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.
Summarized in a report from the Association for Psychological Science, the study also found that having a life purpose consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, whether for younger, middle-aged, or older participants.
According to the lead researcher, Patrick Hill, the findings indicate that creating “…a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.” The study examined data from over 6000 people, including their self-reported level of purpose in life, across a 14-year follow-up period.
The study also found that a sense of purpose had similar benefits regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And, that the longevity benefits of life purpose held up even after other indicators of well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account. “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Hill.
Can Your Create a Sense of Purpose?
I think he’s right, but it’s more likely that they are interwoven factors: A sense of purpose is likely inseparable from a positive spirit about living, which infuses both physical and emotional wellbeing over the long-run.
So how can you create a sense of purpose within today’s turbulent, often confusing world? Most people acknowledge there are “parts” of themselves – desires, imaginative capacities — that remain stifled or dormant. Family experiences and conditioning into your beliefs and values often result in a limited, constricted definition of who you are. For example, I often see people who are outwardly successful in their work or relationships, yet feel hollow or unfulfilled. They report feeling “off-track” in some way, or incomplete. They ask if they’ve been on the “wrong” path — the wrong career, the wrong life partner. This reveals their longing for a meaningful sense of purpose in life.
You always retain the ability to open your consciousness to what you want to really live for. Purpose is different from “happiness,” which fluctuates with daily life events. It’s more of an underlying sense of fulfillment, a feeling of integration and direction that transcends life’s disappointments or successes, even. When you’re living in accordance with your life’s purpose, the above fluctuations are simply what you will encounter along the road. They don’t distract you from your larger vision, beckoning you.
Those who have a sense of purpose share some common themes. One is that they aren’t very preoccupied with self-interest, their ego-investments in what they do. Another is that they use their mental and creative energies to serve something larger than themselves. Here are some ways you can learn from them and work towards discovering your own purpose.
Back Off and Tune Inward
Your purpose might be right in front of your eyes but you don’t see it, like looking for your missing keys when they’re in plain sight. Back off to a larger perspective, from outside yourself, and look inward. You might recognize an inclination or leaning that’s always been inside you. Reflect on whether it meshes with what you’ve been doing in your way of life and commitments. Do the latter serves something of meaningful value to you, over the long-run?
Learn From Your Choices and Their Consequences
Your “successes” or “failures” over the years tell you where you’ve been in harmony with yourself — or not. That’s a good indicator of your life purpose because both your good and bad life experiences are lessons: They teach you what you’ve been trying to express throughout your life, directly or indirectly. They can reveal your longings, your inner vision, and show where you’ve gotten “off-track” from your true purpose.
Get on the Path
When you feel a pull towards something more in synch with who you are, internally, pursue it vigorously, with great intent, whether it’s something material or spiritual. Different ways of life embody one’s purpose, for different people. But always look for the feedback your actions give yourself, for guidance. You’ll learn from that feedback if it’s the true path for you or not.
Build momentum towards your emerging sense of purpose by stretching yourself towards it. Create a vision of what it looks like. Imagine it’s a powerful magnet that’s pulling you along a path towards it. Identify what you can do each day that brings you closer. Trust what your heart tells you, especially when your mind says otherwise (“No, you shouldn’t go there; you can’t do it; you won’t be able to learn how”).
Pursue It With Love
Infuse your actions with a spirit of giving, of service. In effect, with love. When expressing your life purpose, think of yourself as giving love for its own sake, without regard for seeking to be loved back or looking for a “return on investment.” Just pursue your purpose with a sense of giving to it, for itself.
The Sufi spiritual leader Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought his teachings to the U.S. and Europe in the early 1900s, described awakening to your purpose in an interesting way. He wrote that one “…may suddenly think during the night, ‘I must go to the north,’ and in the morning, he sets out on his journey. He does not know why, he does not know what he is to accomplish there, he only knows that he must go. By going there, he finds something that he has to do and sees that it was the hand of destiny pushing him towards the accomplishment of that purpose which inspired him to go to the ‘north.’”
Seeking your purpose in the form of something larger than yourself, that beckons you, while keeping short-term self-interest at bay, makes you more likely to find and fulfill it — while living a long, healthier life.