Welcome to More Than Healthy as we continue to share our weekly health tips. I’m pretty excited about this week’s tip, as it is something I feel passionately about. This week is Tip #76, and we’re talking about the incredible health benefits of finding meaning and purpose in life.
Purpose in life
I have always known that having meaning and purpose in life is important, but I was pretty blown away after researching the health benefits of living a purpose-filled life. The science on this one is pretty compelling stuff. Research proves that when our lives lack meaning and purpose, our health suffers in a myriad of ways.
Purpose in life is so important to our health that it’s even been given a medical acronym of PIL. Some of you may ask what is “purpose in life” exactly? Simply put, “purpose” can mean a feeling that the things you do in life are worthwhile. When you have a sense of purpose, you feel that you’ve made a deliberate choice to act in accordance with your values and goals.
It can work the other way around, too. Your purpose in life can lead to further goal-setting. Either way, your purpose gives you a sense of being in charge of your own life.
A failed retiree
Your purpose does not need to be grandiose; it only needs to be something meaningful to you (and obviously, not anti-social). This is one reason I’ve had a hard time retiring. I’ve actually tried to retire twice, only to discover that retirement is overrated.
We sold our first business with the intention of retiring in 2007. I did a lot of cycling and golf, but I was struggling to find a reason to get up in the morning. It was all fun and games, but it didn’t fulfill me. I can see why statistically, the risk of death goes way up after retirement – it’s not just because of chronological age. I was 50 years old, and I was super bored.
By 2009, I was working on getting another business, IdealShape, off the ground. I was battling cancer when we sold that business in 2016, and that health battle was a full-time job. But after beating cancer, I felt I still had much to contribute. Shortly after that, we started More Than Healthy, where we are able to share all we’ve learned and help others.
We love coaching people on improving their health. It gives us meaningful purpose, and I get excited every day to see who we can help on their journey to optimal health.
Four favorite health benefits of finding meaning and purpose
Let’s talk about four of our favorite health benefits of finding meaning and purpose. We’ll also discuss ways to create a purpose for life if you’re currently struggling with that.
Benefit #1: Longer life
That’s right…people who live lives filled with meaning and purpose actually live longer. Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, did a study that looked at the correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity. His 11-year study followed healthy people between the ages of 65 and 92 and showed that those who expressed having clear goals or purpose lived seven years longer than those who did not.
Another study of almost 7,000 adults over 50 concluded that those with stronger life purpose had lower all-cause mortality. Having purpose also decreased the chance of premature death. Even after controlling for factors like depression and chronic illness, those with a low score in the sense-of-purpose rankings were almost twice as likely to die during the four years of the study (conducted from 2006-2010, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019).
This is because individuals who understand what brings them joy and happiness tend to have what is often referred to as the ‘right outlook.’ They are engulfed in activities and communities that allow them to immerse themselves in a rewarding and gratifying environment.
The Blue Zones
In Dr. Hyman’s book Young Forever, he talks about this concept by sharing what he discovered about people that live in the “Blue Zones,” the five places in the world where people live longer than anywhere else. These zones include:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Loma Linda, California
Sardinia is the area of the world with the highest concentration of male centenarians. Greece’s Aegean Island has one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia worldwide.
People who live in these areas seem to understand their place and purpose in the community in which they live. There is an embedded sense of meaning and purpose that guides their lives. In most blue zone cultures, this concept or purpose, this idea of “why I wake up in the morning,” is an integral part of their culture.
Nicoyans (people who live in the blue zone of Costa Rica) call this sense of purpose “plan de vida.” This includes a positive outlook among elders, keeping them active and focused on family. Okinawans call it “ikigai,” referring to their clear roles of responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their 100s. It’s believed that this strong sense of purpose may, in fact, reduce their chances of suffering from many life-threatening diseases. They also have reduced chance of Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke.
Compare that to the way most of us live in the Western world. Many of us are simply trying to survive each day in this chaotic, hurried, and often disconnected world. And our health (both physical and mental) is paying a very steep price. In the U.S., we spend trillions of dollars on healthcare, yet we are ranked 24th in the world for life expectancy…and we’ve dropped in the ranking three years in a row. That hasn’t happened in any other developed country in the world.
Benefit #2: Better sleep
You probably know by now that here at More Than Healthy, we believe that healthy, restorative sleep is the foundation to all good health. Sleep affects everything!
In a 2019 study of 825 participants with an average age of 79, researchers discovered that those with a higher level of meaning and purpose in life had better sleep quality. Moreover, they found they had fewer problems with sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
This explains one reason why they live longer. If you’re getting a better quality of sleep, then it makes sense why you would live longer. Sleep is the foundation. Eating better, exercising more, or supplementing to compensate for bad sleep is impossible. Too many things happen at night to repair and rebuild our bodies that simply can’t happen any other way.
Benefit #3: Improved heart health
Finding meaning and purpose may actually improve your heart health.
A comprehensive review of 10 studies involving 136,000 people showed that, “People with a low sense of purpose were more likely to have a stroke, heart attack, or coronary artery disease requiring a stent or bypass surgery.”
By contrast, those with a strong purpose for living had a 19% reduction in cardiovascular events.
One explanation for this is found in a study conducted in 2019 by British researchers. They surveyed 7,300 participants over the age of 50, which showed that individuals who had a sense of purpose were more likely to practice healthy habits in general.
For example, participants with high rankings of purpose in life were more likely to exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, watch less TV, participate in the arts, and avoid sedentary behaviors. All these habits would in turn result in a healthier heart.
Additionally, participants with a sense of purpose also experienced greater levels of happiness, well-being, and stronger personal relationships. When you think about it, all of these factors overlap and help explain each of the benefits we’re discussing here: longer life, better sleep, improved heart health, and benefit #4, mental health, which we’ll discuss next.
Benefit #4: Better mental health
It makes a lot of sense that living a purpose-filled, meaningful life contributes to improved mental health. Many of the reasons for this are listed above. And the science backing this one up is pretty interesting.
One study of 77 people in treatment for addictions found that those with a sense of purpose and meaning in life had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another study examined 154 rehab participants. Results confirmed that having purpose in life significantly predicted relapse use of any cocaine and alcohol. The correlation was so strong that increased purpose in life is highly recommended as an important aspect of treatment among rehab patients.
But for me, most compelling of all are the personal examples I’ve witnessed within my own family.
When our family members struggle with finding purpose in their lives, they seem to have significantly more depression and anxiety and turn to addictive substances for relief.
When we’ve watched them go through recovery and find a purpose for their lives, everything in life seems to improve. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have struggles, because they do. But they seem to have something to live for and look forward to that keeps them going.
Additional benefits of finding meaning and purpose
There are some pretty amazing additional benefits of living a purposeful life. As someone who is fully invested in avoiding Alzheimer’s and dementia, the research that links cognitive decline to living with purpose is very compelling to me.
In one 7-year study of more than 900 residents of senior living facilities, researchers found that greater purpose in life is associated with a substantially lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, even when some study participants had Alzheimer’s, follow-up studies showed that higher levels of purpose in life seemed to have a protective effect on cognition.
Another benefit is that those who find meaning and purpose tend to have stronger personal relationships. Surveys of over 7,300 people over the age of 50 show that those who believe that life is worthwhile correlate directly to the likelihood of having a life partner. It also correlated with less risk of divorce, more contact with friends, membership in various organizations, volunteering, and a greater number of close relationships overall. People with greater life purpose experience significantly less loneliness.
This benefit may surprise you. But, in addition to bringing a wealth of health benefits, finding meaning and purpose in life actually tends to bring wealth itself. According to the same surveys mentioned above, a sense of purpose is associated with greater prosperity. This includes income, paid employment, and assets, even after taking baseline wealth into account.
How do I find meaning and purpose in my life?
All of this might sound great to someone who already has meaningful purpose in their life. But where do you begin if you currently don’t have a reason to get up in the morning? How do you start to take the necessary steps toward figuring it out?
It’s not as complicated as you might think. Here are a few ideas that have helped Carla and me as we continually strive to live lives of purpose and meaning:
Take an internal inventory
Think about your ideals, principles, standards, and morals. Then think of your physical, emotional, and mental talents, strengths, and abilities. Take out a blank sheet of paper and write for about 20 minutes. Consider what you really want to contribute to the world.
I have often referred to this process as “finding your why.” In fact, I wrote a whole chapter on this in my book, Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code. Once you have a why that’s powerful, everything else – including motivation – falls into place.
We had to do this back in 2020 when I was in remission from my cancer. I had retired and was looking for what I wanted to do next. That’s when I decided to write a book about my journey and what we had done to heal my body. I felt strongly that there were people I could help to heal themselves as I had done, and a book was the best way to do that.
During this same time, Carla felt impressed to go back to school and get certified as a Functional Nutrition Counselor. She had learned a lot through my health journey, but she felt there was more to learn. She will now say she can’t believe how much she has learned in the past three years about health and nutrition and what it really takes to heal the body.
All of that evolved into our current company, More Than Healthy, which has opened the doors for us to be able to help even more people.
Use your talents and skills
After you figure out what you want to contribute to the world, write a personal purpose statement. Be sure to incorporate what you like to do and where you can share your talents. Then, get to work! Put your skills into action.
A great place to start is by volunteering. Do you love to teach children? Contact your local schools and daycare centers to see if you can volunteer a couple of times a week and share your talent. Use your passions as a launching point for the rest of your life.
In addition to the satisfaction that comes from doing good, people who volunteer have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and depression. Plus, studies show that volunteering reduces the risk of dementia as it improves elasticity in the brain.
Dedicate some space to your purpose
Dedicate a place in your house where you can use your skills and talents and put your skills into action.
It’s also a great idea to display your passions, accomplishments, and the things you are proud of. If you love to do art, be sure to hang it in your home. Been volunteering with your local youth group? Hang photos of your latest service projects.
Every time you walk by, you’ll be rewarded with a surge of pride and a reminder of how you fit into the world.
Find a partner
Find someone you can confide in. Someone you can talk with about your life purpose, along with a plan for realizing it.
I’m so fortunate that I have Carla. When she knew I was struggling to figure out my next steps in life, I told her I wanted to write a book, and she was all in. She encouraged me to do it. When I struggled to stay motivated, she was right there, sharing stories and examples of how what I had done could help someone else. It gave me the motivation to keep going, even when I didn’t want to.
Even now, when it gets difficult for either of us to keep going on this journey to optimal health, we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. It truly is such a gift.
Staying healthy with meaning and purpose
Something else to consider is that finding meaning and purpose may be a little more difficult if you’re struggling with your health. Maybe you’re simply deficient in some vitamins and minerals, or you have something more serious like a parasite or toxic metal overload.
A great way to find out is with hair analysis testing, an amazingly informative service now offered at More Than Healthy. With just a few strands of your hair, you receive a full report looking at toxins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electromagnetic frequency exposure, chemicals, radiation, parasites, immune factors, and foods you should avoid.
We love hearing from you! If you have any questions, you can always go to our social media pages on Facebook or Instagram (@morethanhealthyliving) and ask them there or private message us. We try to respond to all questions.
We’d love to become your health coaches as you work to become “more than healthy” and achieve optimal health. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.
Note: Remember, we’re not doctors. We’re just sharing with you what’s worked for us on our health journey. You will want to consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet and supplementation.