The New Year is often a time for reflection. It is also a period where many make resolutions for the year ahead and some create goals to track performance. Instead, you could start by taking a step back, contemplate what gives meaning to your life and fosters a sense of purpose? The importance of both is critical for your health and well-being.
We may set goals which give us a direction but if there is no meaning behind them, then the purpose doesn’t really exist. Ideally, we will have a self- generated purpose that has significance to us personally. Purpose and meaning do not always come from striving for something bigger than us. They need to be found in our daily lives for us to be truly happy. What gets us out of bed in the morning is the knowledge that our routine has some meaning and the things we do have a purpose which expresses and acts out that sense of meaning. We will continue to live fulfilled lives if we have purpose and meaning even when times are tough and we experience difficult emotions.
Hugh Mackay addresses the question in his book- the good life: ‘what is the meaning of life?’ “We invest our own life with meaning whenever we define a purpose for ourselves that makes sense to us, if not cosmically, then at least personally.”
So what does the science tell us about finding purpose in our life?
Studies have linked purpose in life to numerous positive health outcomes including :
Better mental health and reduction in depressive symptoms
Increased happiness and life satisfaction
longevity and reduced chance of mortality
Reduction in cognitive decline and risk of Alzheimer Disease.
According to one of the researchers; 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.
Another study published in 2010 examined the association of purpose in life with risk of Alzheimer Disease in more than 900 elderly people living in residential care. During the seven years of follow-up, greater purpose in life was associated with a substantially reduced risk of Alzheimer Disease, such that a person with a high score on the purpose in life measure was approximately two and half times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer Disease than a person with a low score. A further study published in 2012 found greater purpose in life may help stave off the harmful effects of plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Why is finding purpose associated with better physical, mental and emotional health?
One possible answer lies with our physiological response to stress. People who experience greater purpose in life are less stressed and experience more positive emotions. Lack of purpose in life is associated with high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenocortitropic hormone (ACTH), markers of inflammation and abdominal fat – all factors that associated with poor general health.
Another study in 2019 proposes “disengagement theory” as being a factor in later adulthood. The theory suggests a view of old age as a time of life when people step back from various commitments and social roles. But the findings of this study highlight the desire and importance of older adults to remain active participants in society through creating opportunities for social connectedness, contribution, and belongingness. All contributing to a life of meaning and purpose.
Finding meaning and purpose
According to Martin Seligman the founding father of the positive psychology movement; “Meaning is knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are.” From my perspective it’s also about reflecting on your passions, priorities, values and strengths, and then using them to guider your actions and behaviour.
Dr Russ Harris suggests that connecting and acting on one’s values helps facilitate a rich and meaningful life: “Values are leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life. More simply, values are desired qualities of ongoing action. They reflect how we want to treat ourselves and others. They enhance our deepest desires as to how we want to show up in the world and behave.”
Taking time out to identify and reflect on your values and strengths is something that I encourage when embarking on your wellbeing journey. Defining your “Why” is key in long term motivation and adherence to new health behaviours, and as we are discovering your long-term health and wellbeing.
Begin with the end in mind
Another powerful way of uncovering meaning and purpose is experimenting with Stephen Covey’s Funeral exercise. It is part of his Habit #2- Begin with the end in mind
Imagine you are meeting with all your family members and friends for the funeral of a person you all know… that person is you! It’s the day of your funeral and all these people have come to honour your memory.
During the ceremony four people are going to speak about you:
A close family member;
A dear friend;
A work colleague;
Someone from a club or association you were involved while alive.
They share with others all the things they want to remember about you.
Think deeply… What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? Which values, contributions and achievements do you want to be remembered for? What difference would you like to have made in their lives?
When you have a clear end in mind, then you can actually start decomposing your life identifying your life purpose and what gives you meaning.
Creating a Life Mission or Vision Statement is an intentional way of connecting with what gives your life meaning. It is a way of articulating how you intend to focus your time, energy and the types of behaviours that will be required to get there. Creating a wellbeing vision is an example of carving the time out to connect with your values, strengths and answering the questions “What do you want?” and “Why do you want it?” In doing so you paint a clearer picture of what optimum wellbeing will look like for you. What you will be doing? Who will you be doing it with? What else might change in your life? And connecting the dots on how this fits into you delivering your life purpose.
Some questions to ponder...
What kind of positive impact do you want to have on the people around you?
What mission in life or at work most inspires you?
What do you want to contribute to the world?
What change do you want to create?
What will be your legacy?
PS. In February I will be launching my Being Vital, Wellness Coaching Program. This program creates a structured and supported way for you to change, so that you can focus your attention, time and energy to create new healthy habits.
Question: What are the key priorities in your life? Can you achieve them without your health and wellbeing?