The brainy benefits of living with purpose

Edited extract from Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) by Dr Jenny Brockis. Now available at all good bookstores and online at drjennybrockis.com.

Do you know what your purpose is? What is it that has you bouncing out of bed in the morning? What energises and motivates you to get on with your day? Knowing your purpose enables you to lead a meaningful life.

It boosts longevity

In one experiment, a study that followed up 14 years later on a group of subjects who reported living with purpose found they had a 15 per cent lower risk of death compared with their peers regardless of age or what gave them their sense of purpose. It may be even more important than regular exercise for decreasing your risk of dying early!

The time of discovery is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether you’ve known since the age of five your calling was to be an astronaut or you didn’t discover your life’s purpose until you were in your forties. It’s connecting with that purpose at some point in your life that matters.

It improves health and wellbeing

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed how, regardless of financial status, gender, race or education level, a strong sense of purpose reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Having purpose lowers cortisol levels, strengthens the immune system and elevates wellbeing. How much happier are you when you’re living on purpose, experiencing less stress, coping better and enjoying a healthier lifestyle?

Conversely, the sense of being stuck, feeling your life has little meaning, is hugely stressful. Boosting happiness and wellbeing means addressing our physiological and psychological needs.

Life purpose is a modifiable risk factor. Choosing to live a life with purpose and meaning ensures better physical and mental health and enhances overall quality of life.

It improves sleep

Between 30 and 45 per cent of older adults report having sleep disturbance of some sort. Research has demonstrated an association between purpose and improved sleep quality, suggesting that tapping into your purpose might prove a useful aid to improving the quality of your sleep.

It boosts cognition

An American study looked at the association between purpose and cognitive function, specifically episodic memory, executive functioning and composite cognitive functioning in adults aged between 32 and 84 years of age. No prizes for guessing their findings showed that those with a sense of purpose scored better on memory and executive and cognitive function at any age.

It changes gene expression

In another study, having a greater purpose in life showed a variable effect on the human genome but was associated with lower inflammatory gene expression and higher levels of antiviral and antibody genes.

It makes us happy

Living a life with purpose and doing things for others are linked to improved health and positive emotion. This emotion differs from the hedonic happiness derived from worldly pleasures such as buying a luxury car or a yacht, which isn’t to say we don’t enjoy such luxuries, but that they don’t produce long-lasting happiness or health benefits.

If you’re still struggling to work out what you want to do with your life, let’s begin by saying there’s no need to put yourself under pressure if you haven’t yet decided. Your sense of purpose may come later, which is fine because it’s something you can build rather than finding it lying around waiting to be discovered. Seek to identify your passions, values and goals, and write them down. What do you truly care about? Read widely, listen and engage in conversation with others to explore what lights you up. Then commit to living your life fully, with the determination to be your best every day.

Once you know your purpose, it helps you to distinguish between the choices you make because you believe them to be right and worthwhile and those you make because they’re easy.

Purpose provides you with your moral compass. Your life’s purpose can take a lifetime to create.

Dr Jenny Brockis
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