What if the key to living a longer, healthier life
does not lie in a health club or on a nutrition label?

Sure, exercising on a regular basis and eating healthy are important, but what if the answer is actually simpler than we think? According to a recent study from Washington University, people with a greater sense of purpose tend to engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors, ranging from eating their veggies and getting more exercise to even flossing their teeth. A sense of meaning is not only linked to a healthier lifestyle but also a longer life. A 2014 study in the journal of Psychological Science showed that people who felt like their lives had meaning had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared to those who felt aimless.

What Does It Mean to Have a Sense of Purpose?

According to a 2009 study in the Review of General Psychology, the authors noted the best way to think of purpose is this definition: “a central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning.” In other words, purpose is recognizing what you want out of life and having a plan to achieve it. While purpose can be aligned closely with one’s identity or sense of self, it also can be something you discover later in life. This is great news for those of us who are trying to change a bad habit and feel hopelessly stymied.

Simply leading a life that matters is probably not enough to reap benefits. Due to daily distractions, it is easy to lose focus. That’s why it is important to remind yourself regularly about what gives your life purpose. Taking a moment to reflect on what makes it all worthwhile will benefit your health and happiness.

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” – Robert Bryne

Having a Sense of Purpose in Life Increases Your Longevity

Living with a distinct purpose is one of the “Power Nine” – nine lifestyle and environmental factors characteristic of the healthiest and longest-living communities on the planet, referred to as Blue Zones. Having a sense of purpose seems to increase longevity through the following:

Decreasing Stress

Being aware of what matters most may help change your mindset about various life irritations and frustrations. For example, someone who has defined their life’s purpose and works to uphold that value might be less likely to overreact to the crawling traffic jam and will in turn, experience lower levels of stress.

On the other hand, simply feeling that your life is aimless can drum up your stress level. Multiple studies from Florida State University have demonstrated links between perceptions of life’s meaningfulness and perceived levels of stress. All findings suggest perceiving life as meaningful functions as a buffer against stressors.

Encouraging Recovery 

Evidence suggests people who feel their lives have meaning may choose more effective coping strategies to protect themselves when faced with an obstacle or challenge. Setting goals also can make it easier to develop new ways to cope with age-related changes. For example, a recent study on arthritis patients undergoing a total knee replacement showed that having a strong sense of purpose before surgery was associated with more effective coping and better physical health after surgery.

Promoting Healthy Behaviors

People with a greater sense of purpose are more likely to engage in healthier lifestyle choices and feel better about their own health. This is likely because having a strong sense of meaning gives you the reasons – or the “whys” – for engaging in healthy habits. For example, exercising or eating vegetables might not please everyone, but connecting this to one’s innermost values and goals can increase engagement in these behaviors, to continue enjoying a purposeful life. Research teams also have found that having a sense of purpose is linked to greater use of preventive health services, and less treatment or recovery time in the hospital.

Improving Brain Health

Having purpose can improve your brain health – without you even making a conscious effort. According to research from Northwestern University, people who feel a purpose are more likely to experience good quality sleep. Other studies have found that adults who reported a greater sense of life purpose tended to score higher on tests of memory and executive functioning. Lastly, researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that participants who expressed less sense of validation in life were 2.4 times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s than participants with higher levels of perceived fulfillment.

Now that we know all the benefits associated with having a life of purpose, it’s time to step back and ask yourself: What is important to you and what drives you in life?

Remember, your health (and longevity) is your most valuable asset.®