Interacting with our seniors at Aegis Living has taught me so much—not just about life and living, but also about how to live a long and happy life. One of the things I’ve learned from our “oracles”—that has been confirmed by research—is that having purpose in your life is critical to your health and longevity.
Some would say that purpose means having a sense of direction and overarching goals, or even specific ones—like learning a new language or playing the piano or guitar.
I think of purpose as putting forth effort toward doing things that have meaning for you and having daily, doable micro-goals. After all, you’re the one who decides what gives you purpose. For example, if gardening has become a passion for you, giving it a sense of purpose in your life would lead you to read gardening books, talk to neighbors about what they’re planting and share ideas and tips, speak to experts at nurseries, and move things around in your yard to improve and enhance their health and visual impact. You get the idea.
A sense of purpose organizes your time, focus, and even relationships. If you have to get out of bed to start making phone calls and planning for a community event you are involved in, it’s easier to push yourself out of bed and get moving.
People who have goals and work toward them also feel a sense of self-worth and fulfillment, which helps them maintain a positive outlook on life. While research shows that finding purpose early in life is a prescription for health, I believe that finding a renewed sense of purpose is what takes people into thriving later in life. If you are bored with cooking after many years of doing it, find a new cooking style—or a completely new hobby or pursuit that excites you. If you live to 100 or beyond, you will have several lifetimes of purpose and passions to fulfill.
Not sure purpose and longevity are connected, consider this. Although it’s believed that being in the White House ages US Presidents prematurely, research shows this isn’t true.
A 2011 study by S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, showed that US Presidents of the last 50 years have lived, on average, 8 ½ to 9 years longer than the average American.
These men held what’s often called the most stressful job in the world—and we know high levels of stress can lead to an earlier death. Why, then, do so many presidents live so long after serving in office?
Maybe what these men have in common is that their lives were driven by purpose, and they were rewarded and praised for their hard work. Also, they carried over their purpose-filled drive for meaning and for making a difference after they served in office.
Finding Purpose Takes Physical and Mental Effort
Hidekichi Miyazaki, a Japanese father of four and grandfather of 10, was 105 years old in 2015 when he completed the 100-meter sprint in 42.22 seconds. He set a new Guinness world record in track and field as the oldest competitive sprinter. He also competed in the shot put event at the Kyoto Masters Tournament.
What struck me most about his life wasn’t his competitive running or his race times. It was his sense of purpose. Before he took up track and field at the ripe age of 93, he spent 33 years practicing calligraphy and playing Japanese chess with his friends. Those habits gave him purpose and friendship for many years. But as his friends started to die from old age, he wanted to find something he could do on his own—thus the track and field events.
Miyazaki is vigilant about his training. According to his daughter, he practices every day, except when it’s raining, in a nearby park. His routine is to run one 100-meter sprint and to practice throwing the shot put three times.
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He refuses to “take it easy,” and he has set a new goal to reduce his 42.22-second sprint time down to 36 or even 35 seconds.
His story shows that finding that purpose and happiness requires a bit of physical or mental effort—a stretching of the mind and body.
The Purpose-Happiness Connection
Purpose is a key driver of happiness, and if you’ve been reading my blogs, you probably know that I think happiness is crucial to good health. But what if you are still on the path to finding your purpose? You still want to infuse some happiness into your life right now, right?
Dr. Becky Su, a brilliant practitioner of Western and Chinese medicine, has some words of wisdom: “Happiness is contagious. If for one night only you can be a beacon of happiness and joy, by the end of the night, everyone in your presence will be happy.” This is a great reminder that we can find moments of happiness, even during trying times. Just as with love, there’s no limit to the amount of happiness there can be in the world.
Dr. Su is perhaps at her most inspiring and helpful when she talks about happiness. Her three steps for happiness are simple and profound:
“If you can’t change it, don’t think about it. If your adult child is struggling and it’s something you can’t change, don’t lose sleep over it. Keep yourself healthy so you can be there for everyone else.”
“You have to give yourself permission to be happy. You can’t make yourself happy, but you can give yourself permission to decide to be happy.”
“Focus on the beautiful and the good. Your brain is trainable. You’re not fixed in your mood, your thinking, how you feel today, or how you’ll feel tomorrow. We’re wired to notice what’s wrong—it’s a survival mechanism—but we can counterbalance that instinct. The Chinese philosophers ask the question, ‘Can the monk move the mountain?’ The answer is, ‘What angle do you want to see?’”
Being happy is obviously a worthy goal to improve the quality of our lives. But the whole field of happiness research is proving that being happy isn’t a “bonus” for a good life; happiness may help us live longer, encourage healthier habits, and even affect our genes.
In this context, happiness doesn’t mean being constantly cheerful or pollyannaish. The goal isn’t perfection or doing everything right to be perfectly happy all the time. Happiness coexists with moments of sadness or grief. A rigid adherence to the “right” behaviors—including the habits I discuss in my blogs—doesn’t guarantee longevity, and correctness without joy leaves us with a life half-lived. Happiness is a way of seeing and interacting with the world that brings positivity, a sense of purpose, and a spark of aliveness that is infectious.
Connect with Your Inner Child’s Purpose to Lift Your Mood
Our attitudes count for a lot when it comes to healthy longevity. It’s been shown that if you believe you look and feel younger than your actual biological age, you’re likely to live longer than someone who feels his or her age or even older. Becca Levy, Ph.D., a researcher on aging at Yale School of Public Health, has shown that a positive attitude toward aging can help you live an average of 7.5 years longer. Our beliefs about aging—whether we think of it in terms of limitation and inevitable decline or of lifelong potential and living at the edge of our capacity— shape our actual health.
At Aegis Headquarters, I built a treehouse behind the main building, so my staff has easy access to childlike experiences.
At our Aegis Living communities, we’ve discovered that people who live longer and happier lives seem to have some kind of totem that connects them to their younger selves. One resident who was nearly 90 loved to ride the Ferris wheel every year.
But the opposite seems true as well. People who think they are “too old” for certain activities they might otherwise enjoy or that they need to “look and act their age” seem to age prematurely.
Your Longevity Is in Your Hands
Wellness Warriors, if you equate aging with inactivity or being “over the hill,” you’re less likely to take care of yourself. You’ll give in to decline. If you believe that aging is defined by how you feel, you’re more likely to practice healthy habits, creating a healthier life span. You’ll eat foods that fuel rather than harm your body. You’ll get the restorative sleep you need, so you have the vitality to fuel yourself throughout the day. You’ll move more and sit less.
All these habits will help you feel better—and younger—and, in turn, help you have the best possible health for the rest of your life.
Until next time, Live Well, Live Long!