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Living With Purpose

As part of our series on living well and living long, we are focusing on purpose.  Earlier, we introduced the body of research known as “the Blue Zones,” the groups of the longest-lived people on earth.  We encourage you to go to www.bluezones.com and read more about the research and how to apply it to your life. 

Why Is Purpose Important?

Okinawans call it “ikigai” or ‘reason for being.’  Costa Ricans call it “plan de vida.”  We would probably call it “my purpose in life.”  In the blue zones regions of the world, purpose shows up again and again as having a major role in well-being and longevity.

In simple terms, purpose acts as a counter-weight against stress.  When the stress of a financial setback or health issue arises, a strong knowing of your purpose can set a course through the situation and get you to safely to the other side.  As many studies have shown, stress is a major cause of many health issues, including inflammation.  In turn, inflammation is a contributing factor in many diseases, both chronic and acute.  Purpose can reduce stress and help reduce overall inflammation, in turn lowering chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke.  There continues to be a growing body of research to support the impact of purpose on mental and physical health and how it can lead to longer life expectancy.

Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, was a visionary pioneer in gerontology.  He and collaborators led an NIH-funded study in 2014 that looked at the correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity.  His study found that individuals who expressed a clear goal in life – something to get up for in the morning, something that made a difference – lived longer and were sharper than those who did not.

A study published in 2016 in Psychosomatic Medicine concluded that possessing a high sense of purpose in life was associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events.  The study included ten previous studies with a total of 136,265 participants.

On May 24,2019, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that life purpose was significantly associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality after age 50.  Also, life purpose was significantly associated with a lower risk of heart, circulatory, and blood conditions.  The study followed about 7,000 adults over the age of 50.  The participants were interviewed using a questionnaire to rank their life purpose.  Researchers assigned life-purpose scores based on participants’ responses and followed up with them five years later. They found that participants who had the lowest life-purpose scores were twice as likely to have died than those with the highest scores.

Finding Your Purpose

From a scientific point of view, these studies focused on life purpose because, as the JAMA study states, “life purpose is a modifiable risk factor.”  In other words, you can find your life purpose and adjust or change it.  You can take steps to make your life purpose clearer and stronger.

So, what can you do to find your life purpose?  According to Richard Leider, author of “The Power of Purpose,” the process isn’t as complicated as it might seem.  Leider has spent over three decades researching and writing about purpose, and coaching people to find their deepest passion.

Leider has a simple formula to explain purpose: gifts + passions + values = purpose.  Gifts are not just what you are good at, but what you love to do.  You will feel energy when doing things you love to do.

Passion and curiosity are closely related.  Your passion can be influenced by events in your past that gave you a strong desire to learn more and to make lives better.

Values include more than the characteristics and truth you embrace: it also includes the environment you are doing what you are doing in.  This is not just a physically healthy environment, but also a relationally healthy environment.  For example, one team and manager within a company may be a very good fit for you while a different team and manager feel toxic to you.

The Blue Zones project and Richard Leider have teamed up to offer The Purpose Checkup at Blue Zones, an online or printable process to guide you toward your life purpose.

A Person With Purpose

When looking for something, including a life purpose, it is helpful to know what it looks like.  We are looking for a person (yourself) who wakes up clear-eyed, with a peaceful knowledge of what they are doing today.  They are energetic because they are doing something they have chosen to do.  This person is engaged and connected.  They do not spend their time thinking about what they wish they could be doing instead of what they are presently doing.  They are content in their activity because they know it is a perfect match for them and is helpful to their family, community and clients.

Is Purpose About Me or About Others?

While your life purpose is by definition yours, purpose is always outside of yourself, and larger than yourself.  Purpose could be called “compassion in action.”  It is our personal desire to give of ourselves to others.

Jim Collins said the most despised trait of leaders is self-absorption – narcissism, huge egos that seem like black holes.  That’s the opposite of purpose.

Life purpose is a balance between serving others and enjoying deep satisfaction in what you do.  If it’s about you all the time, there is a self-absorption that is not good for your health.  If it’s about others all the time, your serving may be unsustainable because you are not taking care of yourself.  Like so many other aspects of life, we must stay in the middle of the road and avoid the ditches on either side.

The Take Away About Life Purpose

Set aside some time to contemplate the components of your purpose.  Talk with people who have known you for many years, if possible, to get their opinion of when they have seen you energetic and engaged.  Take the Purpose Checkup and do some research to help you see things you don’t currently see.

Write down your purpose(s) and read it several times a day until you have it memorized and it gets deep inside you.