Rosean Bishop, Ph.D., L.P.
Psychiatry & Psychology
Does purpose play a positive role in mental health?
The importance of having a purpose is in the headlines and on podcasts. It's the theme of sermons and the subject of self-help books — and for good reason. Studies show that those with a purpose live longer, sleep better and have a more robust immune system, lower stress levels and better cognitive function.
One way a sense of purpose can lead to a longer life is because people with a sense of purpose tend to take better care of themselves through exercise, healthy eating and addressing health issues when they arise.
Lower stress levels mean less cortisol, a hormone that regulates the fight-or-flight response, is released into your system. High cortisol levels have been linked to anxiety, depression, weight gain, headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep issues, and memory and concentration impairment.
Lower cortisol production tends to make you less reactive and more resilient. So you bounce back when you're stressed rather than becoming overwhelmed.
Helping others can pull you out of yourself, give you a different perspective and lead to connecting with others who share common interests.
What is a sense of purpose?
When people hear "a sense of purpose," they often think it has to be something big and world-changing, like finding a cure for cancer. But a sense of purpose also can be less grand. At its most basic, a sense of purpose directs your actions and behaviors. It's an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that's both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world. A sense of purpose often is other-focused, something that can improve the lives of others, something bigger than yourself. A sense of purpose is not a box you check off and move on.
Your sense of purpose may be obvious, such as a lifelong desire to find a cure for cancer. For others, their sense of purpose may come from a traumatic incident, such as losing a loved one to suicide or addiction. For most, a sense of purpose is a journey, it changes and develops as they move through life.
How do you identify your sense of purpose?
Identifying what gives your life purpose requires thought and reflection. Here's how that process may work:
- Start with your values.
If you're not sure what your specific values are, download a list from the internet — there are many to choose from. Go through the list and circle the top 10 that resonate most with you. Then narrow those down to five. These five will help you think about the values most important to you.
- Compare your values with your behavior.
Do you practice what you say? Do your values align with where you spend your time and money? For example, maybe you're the go-to dog sitter when neighbors are out of town, volunteer to walk dogs at the local shelter or donate to a dog rescue group. If those activities are fulfilling and you love supporting the dog-people connection, then it's pretty compelling that dogs give you a sense of purpose.
- Explore ways to live your purpose.
Try an activity related to it, like volunteering as a shopper at a pet food shelf. Then reflect on if you got something out of it and if it connected you with others. If it didn't seem like a good fit, then try another activity. Look at what you're doing now that will help you live your purpose.
Can your sense of purpose change?
As you go through transitions in your life, you may need to adjust, expand on or even find a new purpose. For example, parents' purpose may be raising children who are ethical, kind and critical thinkers. But once those children are launched into adulthood, parents may channel this purpose into volunteering at a preschool or a parenting class.
As retirement approaches, you may have your financial ducks in a row, but haven't given much thought to how you'll spend your time in a meaningful way once you no longer have work as your focus. So before you log out for the last time, get engaged with those things that give you a sense of purpose and meaning. Once you're retired, you may find you have the time to really focus on those things that take your purpose to the next level.
Your sense of purpose should give you satisfaction and bring you joy as you connect with and give to others.
Rosean Bishop, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Psychiatry & Psychology in Mankato, Minnesota.