Finding Your Purpose in Life for Better Mental Health

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A Sense of Purpose Improves Health

If you want to keep depression and anxiety out of your life, find your purpose. Research shows that having a purpose in life will also help you be physically healthier and live longer.

A purpose or mission in life is determined solely by you, because its meaning must resonate with your heart and soul. It could mean being closely connected to family and friends, expressing yourself through art or music, helping children learn to read, or encouraging officials to clean up a polluted rivers and streams.

“Having a sense of purpose is recognized as an important resource for maintaining health and well-being over the life span,” according to a report
titled “Sense of Purpose as a Psychological Resource for Aging Well,” in the journal Developmental Psychology.

The Difference between Happiness and Purpose

Americans are fortunate to live in a land where “the pursuit of happiness” is embedded in the foundation of the nation. But in the frantic 24/7 society that’s evolved, we might sometimes chase momentary happiness instead of experiences that have a deeper and more lasting meaning.

“We’re bombarded with headlines, classes and apps that promise to make us happier. Happiness becomes an obligation,” social psychologist Amy Cuddy wrote in an article in the Boston Globe.

It’s natural to treasure peak moments of happiness, such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or even a perfect picnic when there are no mosquitoes, children play happily and there are no family quarrels. But those are transient moments.

“None of us can feel happy all the time,” said Cuddy, who teaches at Harvard Business School. “And expecting that we can, creates a stark discrepancy from reality- one that ironically leads us to feel less happy.”

Life Satisfaction and Healthy Aging

Having a sense that our life has meaning is a critical element in overall well-being, especially as we grow older.

A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet found that a sense of well-being affects longevity. Thirty percent of 9,000 people age 65 and over who had the least sense their lives had meaning, or were worthwhile, died within eight years.

Another study found that people with a stronger sense of well-being had better memory and fewer symptoms of depression.

5 Tips to Help You Find Your Purpose in Life

Discovering meaning and purpose in life is likely to change through the decades. Often, however, directional signs show up early and become clearer with life experience.

One of the most well-known encouragers of finding your passion and purpose in life is Jack Canfield, originator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has become a series of self-discovery books, media productions and training programs for countless and varied groups of people, from welfare recipients to corporate executives.

Here are some tips from Canfield that have inspired many to find their passion and purpose:

  1. Explore the things you love to do and what comes easily: If you love music and are always singing or tapping out tunes on a piano, go deeper. You don’t have to become a professional musician to gain life satisfaction, but perhaps you can sing with a community chorus. Pay attention to and spend time on your natural talents, whether they are in the arts or bringing people together or exploring science.
  2. Think about the times you’ve experienced the greatest joy in your life: That could be time with your family or alone in nature or working with a group of volunteers in a soup kitchen. Identifying times of joy can serve as guideposts to clarifying your path in life.
  3. Align your goals with your passion and talents: If you wake up on Monday morning and dread going to your job, begin to give more preference to your own feelings. Start working toward a job that is more in line with satisfaction and joy. If you love movies and want to make films, but you’re working as an accountant because your parents paid for college so you could have a secure source of income, you may be in conflict with yourself. Take small steps toward your passion, perhaps a film production course at a community college or volunteer to make videos for local organizations.
  4. Ask yourself what you most enjoy expressing in the world: Perhaps you enjoy cooking, are interested in good health, and you get a great deal of satisfaction by inspiring people to prepare and eat nutritious meals. You can do this at home with friends ands family, you don’t have to be an executive chef or own a restaurant. Perhaps you love children’s books and enjoy volunteering for story time at your local library. Choose more experiences that increase these expressions that connect you to others and to the larger community.
  5. Focus on what you want: Do your best to eliminate fear and negative thinking. If you want to lose weight, don’t focus on restricting food and forcing yourself to eat things you don’t like. Focus on doing what it takes to feel well and energetic, perhaps taking a course on healthy cooking or joining a walking group. Clarify what you want to do when you feel healthier and how that fulfills your life purpose. Maybe you want more energy to take your grandchildren to the playground. If you want to write a book, don’t focus on being too busy or not knowing how to structure a memoir. Take a writing course or join a book club or writing group at your local library. Stay focused, as much as possible, on the positive outcome that’s aligned with what feels like steps on your own authentic path.

Most of all, take small but continuous steps toward your purpose in life. That’s not a momentary experience, but one that generates enthusiasm and hope.
Day by day, that enthusiasm and hope will have a positive and lasting effect on your physical and mental health.

References
Cuddy, Amy, “Looking for Happiness? Try Purpose Instead,” Boston Globe, May 16, 2019

Windsor, T.D., “Sense of Purpose as A Psychological Resource for Aging Well,”
Developmental Psychology, July 5, 2015

Steptoe, Andrew, “Subjective Well-Being, Health and Aging,” The Lancet, Nov. 5, 2014

Canfield, Jack, “Maximizing Your Potential,” The Canfield Training Group, Santa Barbara, CA

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