Why Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life Matters NOW
Most of us wake up each morning, clear about what’s next: whether we are needed for advice, support, caring, decisions, insight, funding, intimacy, whatever, we know that we’ve got someone counting on us… and the day unfolds with a certainty of how we are connected to the world and why we matter. We may call it purpose, drive, or meaning. Without it, we are disconnected from the world, rudderless, isolated. We become lonely.
But loneliness is more than just unfortunate.
Did you know that loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking or obesity, and affects 43% of all older adults?
It’s true — in a review of the academic literature between 1980 and 2014, loneliness (all other factors such as health, wealth, race, gender, age, educational level being the same) was associated with an increase in mortality ranging from 26–32%.
But loneliness doesn’t fit the mold of “health problems” and so it remains unaddressed.
It’s certainly not a disease that I learned to treat in medical school. And yet, it can shorten your life as much as smoking does; it’s worse than the risk placed on your lifespan from obesity, or lack of physical activity, or living in a highly polluted environment.
One aspect of the science is clear: loneliness is bad for your health. It can raise blood pressure, lead to heart disease, suppress the immune system, and may cause premature death. It contributes to depression and cognitive decline. Worse, stigma and shame prevent us from seeking help. And we lose our way.
But how have we tried to fix it?
We herd people into “seniors only” housing so they’re not alone (and in any other context some might call that a ghetto); we urge them to play games so they’re not bored or do puzzles thinking (mistakenly) that might prevent dementia. Or we cajole them to dress up to appear more stylish and confident.
Do we honestly think this is working?
Of course not. When we become disconnected and lose our sense of why we matter, when we lose our sense of life’s meaning or our source of joy, no amount of dressing up or solving puzzles will fill that void. We know that losing our meaning in life can lead to loneliness, but it also can have other significant health challenges.
The science of having purpose in life also holds clues to a richer life as we age. For example, in a study published in 2010, among 900 participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, those with a high “purpose-in-life” score were 2.4 times less likely to go on to develop the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease than those with a low score.
Knowing the potentially protective effects of having a strong sense of purpose in life, why would anyone be without it as they age?
Well, transitions throughout life challenge our sense of purpose. We leave our careers and many of the social contacts that go with it, our kids are independent and no longer need us, we lose a spouse through divorce, death or disability. We give up our homes because they are too large or expensive to maintain. Our friends become less able to engage with us or they move to be closer to their kids. We lose our agility and strength, even our mobility. We can’t hear in a restaurant. It’s harder to read small print. Our memory and problem-solving skills are challenged.
Geez, this is really a downer.
But you see my point — life brings constant challenges to our sense of purpose, meaning and joy. Change is inevitable, but it is also challenging. How we choose to face the many risks to our sense of purpose, and how we learn from them is what determines our quality of life.
Purpose helps us feel that we’re part of something that extends beyond us, that we have a sense of belonging. We have a contribution to make, whether to our own personal enrichment, or to others.