‘The question is not to know what is the meaning of life, but what meaning I can give to my life’ – Dalai Lama
Have you ever stopped to wonder why finding a meaning in our life (or a sense of purpose) is really important for physical and mental wellbeing? I know I hadn’t until I came across a magazine article and decided to find out more. Research shows that living life with intention is good for us.
Having a sense of purpose comes from the feeling that what we do is worthwhile and has a value. If we do a job and we don’t know why we are doing it, it naturally doesn’t feel good and, as a result, we become demotivated and uninterested. Alternatively if your work involves caring for others, nursing or teaching for example, or you can see a clear reason for what you do, it makes you feel that it’s worthwhile and that you have a purpose. For people facing redundancy, unemployment or retirement, the lack of a sense of purpose can lead to a decline in mental health if we don’t find something else to fill the gap.
It’s not just about our work either. A study in 2020 by Lewis and Hill discovered that retired people felt more purposeful in the evening if they had socialised during the day. They also found that people who enjoyed artistic hobbies were more likely to live longer as the activity gave them a genuine sense of purpose as a result of creating something tangible. Studies have shown that people who have a good sense of purpose have a lower risk of developing heart conditions such as a stroke or heart attack. They are also less likely to develop cognitive impairment such as dementia.
‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away’ – Pablo Picasso
So people with a sense of purpose are more likely to live longer, healthier lives. One of the other reasons for this is that having a sense of purpose makes you more organised and a more organised person is far more likely to eat well, exercise regularly and make good medical choices, such as visiting the dentist regularly and attending all their screening appointments. They are also far less likely to spend hours in front of the TV.
Having a sense of purpose though is not the same as being happy necessarily, although the chances are that happiness will naturally follow if you live a meaningful life. Everyone faces setbacks in life but people who have a strong sense of purpose usually recover from these negative experiences much more quickly, partly because they are able to see them as a blip rather than the end of the world. Stress causes inflammation in the body and extreme or long term stress can lead to several different health conditions. Dealing with stress as it occurs really helps both mental and physical health and keeps our moods on a level rather than fluctuating wildly. Studies have also shown that people with a sense of purpose are less affected by external factors such as the number of likes they get on a social media post for example. In other words they have higher self-esteem and aren’t dependent on the approval of others.
So how can we create a more purposeful life? A good way to start is to think about what matters to you. What are your beliefs? Your values? What/who do you care about? What makes you happy? It’s really important to make sure that this is your list, not someone else’s or what you think it should be. There’s no point in saying ‘I care about animal welfare’ if it’s not something you are passionate about. The things included on you list really need to be the ones you actually want to do something about not just agree with or think about occasionally. Our values and beliefs shape our world and they are as individual as we are. But it’s also important to remember that a sense of purpose is different to a goal. It is not a one-off thing that you may or may not achieve, it is something you are continually working towards, a direction.
Once we have a list, we can start to create a life where we include these things. Care passionately about climate change? Great, what can you do to make the changes necessary in your own life? What can you do to spread the word to friends and family or the wider world? Have a hobby you love but never seem to have time for? How about doing that today instead of watching TV? After all, in a year’s time are probably won’t remember that series you watched on Netflix, whilst the bird table you made or the artwork you created will still be there, giving you or someone else pleasure.
‘The meaning of life is not out there but in-between our ears. In many ways this makes us the lords of creation’ – Stephen Hawking
So the tiny tweak is to begin to think about our passions, our beliefs, our values and what we can do to make sure we include them in our lives as often as possible. What’s on your list?!
Until next time xx
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