A new study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that if you feel you have a purpose in life, you’re more likely to feel both physically and mentally well on a daily basis.
The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 adults ranging in age from 21 to older than 100 using questionnaires designed to assess their physical and mental well-being. Researchers also used other questionnaires aimed at identifying the degree to which the adults found or sought meaning in their lives. They found that people who felt that they had meaning in their lives were more likely to feel physically and mentally healthy, while those who were “searching” for meaning were less likely to feel that way. These associations were particularly strong among older people in the study.
“The basic finding that having a sense of meaning in life is important to health, and that it becomes even more important as we get older, makes a lot of sense,” says psychologist Simon Goldberg, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds, which conducts research into improving mental well-being for people around the globe. “We do have to search for it sometimes, but it is comforting when we can find purpose in our lives, and that may even affect our physical health.”
But if you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! So now I have to worry that if I don’t have some lofty sense of purpose, it’s going to make me sick?” hold on. Don’t stress about that on top of everything else, Goldberg urges. First, it’s hard to tell cause and effect from the study. Are people who are struggling to find meaning in their lives less healthy as a result -- or is it harder for people to identify meaning or purpose in life when they’re having major health challenges? “Very likely, it goes both ways,” Goldberg says.
And maybe it’s easier to find meaning in life than we think. (No meditating at a monastery required.) “What this study does suggest is that we should emphasize activities and pursuits that we love, that are meaningful to us, and see those not as ‘something extra’ that we only pursue when we have spare time, but as essential sources of health and well-being.”
What’s more, “Well-being is a skill, and it’s one we can practice,” he adds. “The scale the researchers use in the study for finding meaning includes statements like ‘My life has a clear sense of purpose.’ It doesn’t say what that purpose has to be.”
Three ways you can find meaning in your life, according to Goldberg:
Relationships With Family and Friends
“Our social relationships are an incredible source of meaning for human beings,” Goldberg says. “It’s worth it to invest time in them.” That lunch with your best friend you’ve been putting off because you’re just too overscheduled? Consider it just as important as your next doctor’s appointment.
Hobbies or Activities That Bring You Joy
Make yourself a “prescription” for chess at the community center, an hour in the garden, an afternoon teaching your child to cook.
Focus on Others
“At [my] center, we emphasize the power of kindness to improve our own mental wellness,” Goldberg says. “It doesn’t have to be something huge like donating a kidney, but rather daily habits like opening a door, making breakfast for a child, or giving a compliment. Make kindness a regular, conscious practice.”
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