Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Purpose is paramount in my life, and I think that’s just the way I’m built. But what I didn’t really understand until recently was that my purpose brings me such happiness, gratitude, and optimism for the future. Your purpose can bring the same health-giving energy to your life as well.
While we can’t control our life circumstances, we can do our best to find ways to promote happiness, purpose, and well-being. The physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual elements of life all promote our healthy longevity. Living in a state of suffering, anger, or anxiety, on the other hand, leads to the opposite of health, just like too much sitting or not enough sleeping.
As you read about some of the research on longevity and happiness, you might start to think, “That’s something my grandmother told me once.” Studies show she was right about quite a lot when it comes to a positive outlook and not letting yourself get too wound up about the things you can’t change. Even so, you might be surprised by some of the discoveries researchers are making.
Let It Go
Don’t ignore the value of letting go of what isn’t working for you, whether it’s a too-stressful job or a relationship or something else, like a habit of letting people push your buttons. It is never too late to reinvent yourself.
There is no law that says midlife and older people don’t and can’t change. All the research on aging shows that people do continue to evolve and grow throughout their lives. Undertreated anxiety or depression at any age is not necessary. There are solutions and you can harness your resilience and feel optimistic about your future.
The Purpose Effect
To some, purpose means having a sense of direction and overarching goals, or even specific ones—like learning a language or how to play the piano or guitar. What I’ve come to understand is that, no matter what a person’s purpose, it can be defined as a reason to wake up in the morning because you’re needed—by an endeavor, a spouse, a community, or grandchildren.
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 organizing for a community event you are involved in, it’s easier to push yourself out of bed and get moving.
Dabbling—putting forth minimal effort instead of pushing yourself to learn more, create more, and contribute more—doesn’t give rise to satisfaction and doesn’t grow a sense of purpose. Being able to give someone advice on where to plant a particular flower or bush on their lawn or helping your gardening club put on a plant sale can make you feel connected to others around you. Learning about something new from others can do that, too. Think about what you can share with other people and what you can learn that will make you feel energetic.
Renewed Sense of Purpose People who have goals and work toward them are likely to 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 gardening after many years of doing it, find a new way to garden—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. One grandfather started a blog when he was 100 years old. Every day was an occasion to capture his thoughts and master the technology.
Goals, learning, and connecting with new people can all contribute to a sense of purpose and keep you feeling excited about an activity.
Although we say that being in the White House ages United States 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 United States 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.
Jimmy Carter became involved in Habitat for Humanity, helping build houses for low-income people, and was an international peacemaker for decades. Bill Clinton developed a global foundation to connect and fund people with good ideas to solve problems like the AIDS crisis. He and George H. W. Bush worked together to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 South Asian tsunami. George W. Bush quietly became an accomplished artist and published a highly praised book, Portraits of Courage, with his compelling paintings and stories of veterans. The project exemplifies the role of purpose.
The irony is, with the exception of Walter Mondale and Dick Cheney, U.S. Vice Presidents typically have not lived past age 76, the average mortality rate for men in the United States. I believe this is in part because they had a great deal of stress in their lives, but very little of the purpose, praise or rewards that comes with the presidency. After their term was over, they generally also did not develop a cause, mission, or purpose to carry them through the rest of their lives. If you think of what I’m saying as an equation—stress + no praise + no reward + no purpose = early death—you can see why you should take measures to turn that equation around.
We all have stress in our lives and this example illustrates why I strongly encourage you to live your life with positive purpose that brings meaningful rewards to you.
Purpose is Powered by Resilience and Optimism
To me, resilience—the ability to adapt positively to adversity—has always seemed to be a hallmark of longevity. I think that’s one of the qualities that led to my interest in aging when I was just starting my career in my 20s.
I always remembered the time I was a young boy and met a World War I veteran in the home for the aging where my grandmother lived. On one of our weekly visits, I wandered the hall and heard a man calling for help. I tentatively walked into his room and retrieved his pillow that had dropped to the floor when my eyes saw all his medals. We started talking and I was spellbound by his war stories, but also the stories of his productive—and now I see resilient—life.
The next time I visited my grandmother, I went to look for him and found out he had died. I never forgot him and when I got my first job working with the elderly, the thing that made the work meaningful for me was spending time talking to the residents.
Resilience and grit are being recognized as underlying keys to successful learning in young children—they lead to innovative thinking, perseverance, and delayed rewards. These are all things that help children experience the intrinsic rewards of learning. The same applies across the life span.
Purpose Can Improve Mental Health
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I believe that having a strong sense of purpose does a great deal to lift one’s mood and outlook on life no matter what a person’s age. I also believe it’s vital for improving mental health. Health researchers have known for quite a while that people with severe mental illness in general have shorter life spans, but they are starting to learn that milder conditions such as depression and chronic anxiety also have a very real impact on people’s lives. Even low-level signs of depression and anxiety may be associated with a 20% increase in health risks. Chronic stress can lead to a string of problems, including increased cortisol and inflammation, a depressed immune system, metabolic changes, negative changes in the gut microbiome, brain disorders, and shortened telomeres.
My point is that to avoid this, especially as we age, make an effort to keep your sense of purpose alive and well. There are so many options to improve your emotions and health. All the habits I’ve been sharing in this blog series have a direct connection to emotional well-being, but for anyone dealing with chronic unhappiness, anxiety, or worry, finding a sense of purpose and having healthy sleep practices are probably the first ones to adopt.
Your Longevity Is in Your Hands
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 the habits of health, 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.