Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
20 Aug

Does Life Purpose Enhance Longevity?

What is your mission?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!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. ‘For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset
    and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.’

    Fred wrote on August 21st, 2013
  2. Hi Mark,

    Not to mention less joint inflammation. In 2007 I ran my last 5 mile race. My right leg is 3/4″ shorter than my left, have had work and personal injuries to the right knee, wear arch supportive orthotics for very flat feet. After going paleo about 6 months ago I can now mix 10-15 minutes of running with my 30 minute “walk”. I can even run continuously for 4-6 minutes, haven’t been able to do that for years! Add to that sore throat issues that had me cancel out on my singing lessons (for fun, not professional). I called this evening to reschedule singing lessons! I am a BELIEVER! Primal may not be for everyone, but it is for me! Incidentally, have lost 4 pounds and my BMI is now in a healthy range and am getting stronger, am 64 years young YES!

    Neil E. Meiskey wrote on August 21st, 2013
  3. Wow. Great post, Mark. I love to see that the PB has transitioned well beyond diet and exercise.

    Chris wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  4. What a wonderfully pertinent post. I’ve been questioning the path I think I’ve chosen for my long term future, and wondering if I have been trying to rush or force my decisions. This is a great reminder for me to be in the moment and not put so much pressure on deciding when to take the next turn.

    Julie wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  5. This was a warming, heartfelt article. Much enjoyed. I’m in my early twenties but I even at this age have struggled with living true to my sense of purpose. Having a job while being in school has taken time away from my passion in health and fitness, and I admire people like you who have made the time to write great content to inspire others.

    I also just feel healthier and less stressed when my purpose is intact and I am actively striving to achieve my purpose.

    On a spiritual note, I think astrology whether or not you believe in it, helps people live to accomplish their purpose or live through passion, more efficiently. From astrology I think we can all see that we need to do things in different ways to accomplish our purpose and live passionately.

    For people like myself, I need to be in control… when I have duties at work or at school, I feel a loss of control, and being aware of this helps to mitigate those negative feelings. Cheers!

    Avishek wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  6. I highly recommend (Rabbi) Harold Kushner’s book “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” for an excellent exploration of the subject of life’s purpose. It is not a religious treatise, although he pulls from his extensive experience as a rabbi and uses the Book of Ecclesiastes as a touchstone on the subject. Regarding the latter book, American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”

    Eric wrote on August 22nd, 2013
  7. A wise woman once said:

    “The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life. In order to be in control of your life, you have to have a purpose—a productive purpose” -Ayn Rand

    Kael Varnson wrote on August 23rd, 2013
  8. I just got back from a three week road trip starting in Maine, to Vermont, into Eastern Canada, to the UP in Michigan, then down to Wisconsin and Minnesota, to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and then Utah…

    It changed my life… I hiked all along the way and really came to some big conclusions about my life and where I’m heading. Being away from your every day grind helps you get perspective about what’s really important and what makes you happy.

    Thanks for the reaffirmation about this. I intend to get out of my grind more often now!

    Meagan wrote on September 18th, 2013

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