A study was just published in the journal Psychological Science demonstrating that "purposeful individuals lived longer than their counterparts." There have been other studies backing up the belief that having a purpose in life, as opposed to wading through daily activities without any overarching clear goal or feeling that one is on a meaningful path, is important for healthy aging. In fact, purpose or meaning has been correlated with many positive health outcomes, such as protection against dementia.
As a physician, I see that patients who want to accomplish something, a trip to France or a triathlon, are more likely to persevere through an illness and recover faster than those who don't have a specific goal. It should be astonishing that the mind can have such impact on our body's immune system and resilience. But we all know it to be true.
This study showing that the ultimate health outcome, death, is affected by this sense of purpose should lead us to rethink how we view health activities. We should be ranking "sense of purpose" right up there with quitting smoking, eating a healthful diet, exercising and taking our medications as prescribed.
So how does this work? How can having a sense of purpose make any difference in our physical health?
The easy answer is that we can persevere when we have a goal in mind. Our resolve and ability to push on, our resilience, is strengthened when we have a specific goal in mind. I am able to run farther if I am trying to reach a particular destination (for example, when I am trying to get to the cold beer truck at the end of a race) as opposed to just running until I feel like stopping. The desire to reach a pre-envisioned goal motivates me to go farther and maybe faster -- to work harder.
There is also a deeper answer to explain how an overarching sense of purpose helps us stay healthier and live longer. The answer works through an emerging science known as epigenetics.
We now know that our thoughts (including thoughts of a purpose or goal) affect how our cells behave. Dr. Bruce Lipton has been a leader in the science of belief and genetic expression. As he explains in his book Biology of Belief, epigenetics shows how our actions, our thoughts (hence our beliefs) and what we are exposed to all affect what our genes do, which genes get turned off and which get turned on. Genes control what proteins get made, and therefore what our cells do. So when we are focused on achieving a goal, our brain releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) that influence the cells to make things that help us accomplish those goals. This makes us more able to accomplish the steps we need to in order to achieve that goal. Our genes are amazingly responsive to our thoughts. That is why people say that everything is created twice: first in the mind, as a thought, and later as reality. The thought helps you create the reality.
Good health can be a noble purpose. Using good health to excel at something can be a noble purpose. Being a better spouse or parent can be a noble purpose. Whatever it is, clarity about some purpose or goal not only will help you to achieve it but will give you more healthy years to do so.
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