Turning 60 a few weeks back was quite a trip. It’s one of those milestones that prompts reflection as well as plenty of celebration. (My wife, Carrie, is always good about getting me to do that part.) I’ve known for many years that hitting 60 wouldn’t be the bleak event our culture often makes it out to be. Personally, I don’t feel like I’m slowing down any. Nor do I have plans to. I don’t feel like life is shifting into retrospect. Doors of opportunity and innovation aren’t closing. Honestly, I find life to be more full of possibility than ever. A huge part of this, I believe, has been refining my life’s purpose. As always, I want to be a good father, husband, son, friend, etc., and I feel more deeply and confidently about these roles at this point. In terms of my vocation (because it’s much more than a job for me), I feel like I’m just getting going. I’ve been involved in health and fitness all my life, but in the last several years I’ve come closer than ever to feeling like I’m centered in the crux of that vision. I’m interested in helping people get healthy and thrive to their fullest potential. That’s exactly what I get to do each day, and it gives me satisfaction – and purpose. The whole reflection got me thinking about the physiological (and maybe even Primal) connection: does a sense of personal meaning translate into health and longevity?
The Protective Effects of Purpose
Some days we all feel like we’re going through the motions. When you take the sum total of your experience, however, what do you feel? How directed do you feel in life? How connected to a larger purpose (not necessarily metaphysical) would you say you are? Research has looked at how a sense of purpose can extend (as well as expand) our lives, and the results are impressive.
A well controlled study conducted by Rush University Medical Center experts, for example, found that over 1200 senior subjects who described themselves as having a higher sense of purpose were approximately half as likely to die during the five year study observation than those who claimed little sense of purpose. Among the statements most associated with the difference in mortality risk were three: “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life;” “I used to set goals for myself, but that now seems like a waste of time;” and “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” Although the researchers note the importance of these questions for seniors, there’s clearly something to be gleaned here for all of us across the lifespan.
In related studies by the same Rush University team, those with a strong sense of life purpose were less likely to develop the neurological damage seen in Alzheimer’s and to actually experience Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment.
Other research, including a study of over 12,600 Hungarian citizens, also suggests the protective effects of life purpose. A greater sense of “life meaning,” the researchers found, was associated with decreased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and mortality. Likewise, Dan Buettner, global longevity researcher and author of The Blue Zones, has cited the sense of life purpose as one of the pivotal traits supporting longevity in the world’s longest living populations.
To explore the topic from another angle, experts have looked at the effect of retirement on mortality risk. Although the results are mixed, some studies show a significant increase in mortality in people who retire early (PDF).
The Primal Point of Meaning
Why the connection? What’s the purpose of, well, purpose? Patricia Boyle, head researcher for the Rush University Medical Center studies, suggests the sense of meaning is an element of “human flourishing” and reflective of the “tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences” as well as meet life with “intentionality.”
It’s not a huge leap of logic to imagine how this “tendency” could’ve served our ancestors. When they were inclined to “derive meaning from life’s experiences,” they were primed to live in tune with – and productive curiosity about – their surroundings and human community. Exploration simultaneously satisfied something in them and (often, at least) spurred them toward greater opportunity and security. They were rewarded for feeling and finding purpose in their roles within the band community and in their endeavors for the sake of the group.
The same holds true for us today. We gain the same satisfaction from successfully filling the roles we value. We are gratified by contributing to the larger needs of the circles we inhabit – particularly when we can do so from a place of personal effectiveness and passion. The more we feel engaged with life, the healthier we are. Once we feel cut off from the flow and interaction of life, however, we’re more likely to wither in body and mind.
Hunting for Purpose
So, what if you don’t know your life’s purpose? What if you’re young and still exploring? What if you’re older and still exploring? What if you’re in the midst of a major life transition and questioning everything you ever thought your life was about? I don’t profess to have the answer, and I don’t think there’s one way to get there anyway. Nor do I think the answer can be forced into existence out of sheer willpower. That said, I do believe we often have more of an opinion about it than we think we do. A dose of patience in the right conditions can sometimes coax it to the surface. Here’s my take….
Sure, do the list making, the rational weighing, the free from brainstorming that experts suggest. Reflect on your passions, your priorities, your values, your talents and temperament. Consider where all of these can intersect with the needs you see in the circles or society around you. Talk to friends. Take a stab at writing a personal mission statement if you’re so inclined. Mull on the question while you’re washing dishes. Fill your head with the possibilities, the pros and drawbacks, the complexities and ambiguities. But then move out of cerebral mode entirely, get out of your own way, and hand the question over to your intuitive self.
Personally, I find there’s nothing more conducive to intuitive thinking than solo time outdoors (little surprise there, no?) – the farther away from civilization and other people the better. Don’t put the pressure on a single afternoon in the woods. Schedule a hike/climb/paddle/bike ride every weekend for, well, several weeks. As long as it takes (or as long as you just feeling like hitting the trail)… Think the question once – and only once – as you head out “into the wild” for your mini retreat. Then forget about it for the day. Just be and do and watch and smell and head home when you’re good and ready. Let the trees or mountain or river or whatever hold your place in the process like a living bookmark. Come back again the next week, and do the same thing. Keep coming.
One day you’ll leave with your answer. Maybe it will come to you like a vision as you round the corner of a trail one day. Maybe it will settle in quietly, almost imperceptibly until you finally notice it’s there with you. Either way, you’ll have let your answer come forth from hours of, call it, Primal meditation. Not a bad source to tap into when you’re seeking purpose – and time away worth the health benefits all on its own.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. Enjoy your week!