Having purpose in life is essential to wellbeing. We all want to live a life that has meaning and importance. As we age, our life circumstances change. A job that was once engaging and rewarding looses its’ charm and it’s time to retire. A dependent child grows into an independent adult. These are life events to be celebrated, but they can leave a gap to be filled. As these life events happen, the roles we have used to define ourselves change, which creates a risk of loss of purpose. This can have negative health effects, but it can also be a wonderful opportunity to find new fulfilment.
Living a life with purpose feels good. Amazingly it is also liked with better health and longevity. In a study of a large group of older adults, those with a higher sense of purpose maintained a higher walking speed. This is important as maintaining the ability to walk fast is an excellent indicator of general health and physical reserve to cope with illness. People with purpose have higher levels of physical function, which is so important for independence. A higher level of purpose even decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Even for those who already have cognitive impairment, a higher sense of purpose can slow any cognitive decline.
There are many reasons purpose has such strong health benefits. People with a sense of purpose do tend to undertake healthier behaviours, including good nutrition and exercise. This group also tend to be proactive in self-care. Even more than this there is also a direct biological effect. People who have a higher purpose have decreased levels of inflammation. Inflammation can be a functional protective response to infection or injury, as an example if you cut your hand, there will be increased blood flow as well as white blood cells to fight infection and cellular transmitters to stimulate healing. The inflammatory response then quickly turns off when it is no longer needed. Inflammation becomes problematic when it is chronically turned on at a low level, which can be a result of stress. Over a long period of time, inflammation can result in frailty, or a decreased reserve to recover from illness and an increased risk of functional decline. People with a higher level of purpose have lower levels of inflammatory markers. This is even true in those who have chronic medical conditions.
Purpose in life is a central component of well-being, it reflects the extent to which people see meaning in their life. It is also something we can all work to develop. Living a life rich with purpose is rewarding in it's own right. If you feel lost with life changes, it is within your power to define a new role for yourself. We all have our own skills and talents. If you have had many years of life, you will have a huge number of individual resources. Purpose doesn’t have to be showy, like a high status job. Caring for grandchildren, or volunteering at a nursing home can make a huge difference to other people’s lives and is emotionally enriching. Creating your own goals like a fitness challenge or writing a blog every month are other achievable ways to create purpose.
Two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that the highest claim of human goods is not happiness, but striving for the best that is within us. We all have our own talents and skills. It is just a matter of applying these as our life circumstances change to get the health benefits of purpose.
Please note, this article contains general education and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. If this article raises any health or other concerns, please consult your own medical practitioner.
For further strategies on finding purpose and engagement, the following article by Dr Margaret Rutherford is excellent: