Living with Purpose: A Key to Longevity

Dr. Paige Baker-Braxton

Dr. Paige Baker-Braxton, licensed clinical psychologist and director of outpatient services at Vail Health Behavioral Health

What is your purpose in life? It’s a deep and very personal question, but one that could add years to not just your lifespan, but more importantly, your “healthspan.” What is a healthspan? Well, if longevity is the achievement of a long life, then your healthspan is defined by the years you live a healthy life. Studies have shown that having a sense of purpose in life can increase physical and mental health, thereby adding years to your healthspan. While the exact mechanisms underlying these effects are complex and may vary from person to person, several factors contribute to the overall well-being associated with having a purpose. 

  • Increased positive emotions: Pursuing a life purpose often involves engaging in activities that bring joy, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. This can lead to increased positive emotions, contributing to overall happiness. It also has the potential to increase optimism, motivation, and direction in life.
  • Physical health benefits: Research shows having a sense of purpose can contribute to greater physical activity levels, better sleep, healthier weight, and lower inflammation. People with a strong sense of purpose may be more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles. They may be motivated to make choices that support their well-being, such as maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly and avoiding harmful behaviors. Chronic stress is associated with various health issues. A sense of purpose can act as a buffer against stress, potentially reducing its negative impact on physical health. 
  • Resilience to stress: Having a clear purpose can provide a framework for dealing with life's challenges. Individuals with a sense of purpose may exhibit greater resilience in the face of stress, as their goals and values help them navigate difficult situations and provide them with the motivation needed to persevere.
  • Social connection: Engaging in activities related to one's purpose often involves interacting with others who share similar values or goals. This social connection can provide a strong support network, reducing feelings of isolation and contributing to emotional well-being. It has the potential to enhance relationships and foster a sense of community. Social connection is often a strong antidote used to reduce mental health issues.
  • Improved immune function: Some research suggests that having a sense of purpose may positively influence immune function, making individuals less susceptible to illness.
  • Cognitive benefits: Engaging in purposeful activities may stimulate cognitive function and keep the brain active. This can contribute to cognitive health and may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Longevity: Some studies suggest that having a sense of purpose is associated with increased longevity. The motivation and positive outlook associated with purposeful living may contribute to a longer and healthier life.
  • Life satisfaction: Having a sense of purpose often translates into making a positive impact on the world or leaving a legacy. This can act both as a motivator and as an impetus for people to focus on both self-improvement and personal growth.
Why is living a purpose-filled life hard?
If having a purpose has clear evidence for improved health, wellness, social connection, and meaning in life, why don’t we have this conversation in our schools, workplaces or at the family dinner table? The answer to that is complex. There are, of course, competing priorities in life. Daily demands often take precedence over philosophical thought. We may not have the skills, clarity, or ability to spend the introspective time determining our purpose. Culturally, in America, we are often pragmatic: how am I going to pay my bills, what is for dinner, how do I get my next raise? It can be hard to find the time we need to focus on our internal worlds.

How do I find my purpose?
Finding purpose is an exercise in deep introspection. Some places to start:
  • Reflect on your values: What principles and beliefs guide your actions and decisions? What is important to you across life domains: family, social, occupational, spiritual, community?
  • Explore your passions: What brings you joy? What activities can you immerse yourself in for hours without boredom?
  • Identify your strength and talents: What are you good at? What do people appreciate in you?
  • Seek professional guidance: Work with a spiritual leader or therapist to explore your interests, strengths and purpose.
It’s never too late to find your purpose, and studies show that people who pursue their life purpose at older ages often work beyond retirement age, volunteer in their communities, pursue hobbies, and engage with others, thereby not just living longer, but healthier and more fulfilling lives.