A Sense of Purpose

Scientific research and sheer observations of people from many different cultures show that individuals live longer when they have a strong sense of purpose and feeling of belonging. Beyond adding years to their lives, they are also more likely to remain physically and mentally healthier.


Producing hard evidence, a particularly interesting study involved 1,000 participants (80 years old on average, they agreed to have their brains examined post mortem) by neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle and her team at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. The research showed that those with a high purpose were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment than their counterparts who felt their lives had a lower purpose. In fact, a high sense of purpose enabled people who showed the markers of Alzheimer’s to keep their faculties.

What, then, grants a sense of purpose?

The answer is personal. For many, it’s a paying job, but the parameters differ by individual. Some enjoy continuing in a lifelong profession or career, whether that means remaining at the helm of the firm or behind the cash register at the corner deli. Some opt for less responsibility and a lighter schedule. Others evolve their talents. The retired high school botany teacher, for instance, might take a part-time position at the local garden center.

Volunteer work can also be highly rewarding, particularly when people who give their time intentionally channel their energy to areas that reflect their interests or passions.

People also become committed to old and newly acquired hobbies, which can further provide sources of income, open doors to volunteering, and/or produce pleasurable times shared with others. From performing in the school chorus when young, a retired executive who didn’t have the time while working might join an adult choir or amateur singing group. Social engagement and sense of belonging would further enhance the person’s sense of purpose.

A grand mission is not a requirement for an activity—whether golfing, writing, baking, photography, learning a language, etc.—to add meaning to someone’s life. Enjoyment, however, tends to spark commitment, and the combination often has a way of revealing a greater purpose. Organizing prized recipes might prompt adding written memories of family gatherings and then photographs. Inspired by the labor of love, one might take the next step of publishing a book as a keepsake for current and future generations to treasure.

At times, a seemingly arbitrary decision to dive in launches a voyage that leads to the greater purpose. For example, taking a class in how to use various social media websites doesn’t guarantee one will develop an insatiable appetite for Facebook, but taking part in conversations online could deepen connections with children and grandchildren or kindle friendships. Maybe spotting a post online about a cause or trend grabs one’s attention and sparks an interest.

All lives have a purpose. Consider the tiny Japanese pufferfish’s “crop circle.” Observing him from the level of the seabed, few would guess why he was pushing sand around for 24 hours per day, seven days per week, or what he was building. In time, his intricate design would be revealed, but one would need to rise above it to view and appreciate his artistry. Additional time and observation would also expose the valuable purpose of his tremendous effort: to attract a mate.

A little effort and a bit of perspective are often all one needs to gain a greater sense of purpose.