Why purpose boosts health and happiness

A better memory, greater resilience and even a longer life: Why it’s worth having a purpose – and how to find one.

What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning?

And we don’t mean the sound of your 6am alarm.

We mean that thing that gives you a reason for doing and prioritising certain things.

It might be the desire to be a great parent, a need to care for animals or helping others through your work.

“Your sense of purpose is what drives you forward,” University of Melbourne Centre for Wellbeing Science Associate Professor Peggy Kern says.

Thinking that sounds a lot like a goal? Not so fast.

“Purpose and goals are related but some important distinctions exist,” Assoc Prof Kern says.

The difference between purpose and goals

One way of understanding the difference between a goal and purpose is that goals can be achieved and ticked off as “done”.

Purpose, on the other hand, is more of an ongoing intention that never really gets completed.

“While your purpose can result in setting goals that help direct your actions, not all goals will align with your purpose,” Assoc Prof Kern says.

She explains goals are often things that society or others set for us rather than something that’s intrinsically or internally motivated by our own values, beliefs and interests.

“Intrinsically motivated goals align with our purpose – things we want to do rather than feel like we should do,” she says.

“As a result, they are often easier to achieve.”

What’s so good about purpose, anyway?

Research shows higher sense of purpose relates to greater life satisfaction, positive affect and better cognitive outcomes.

But there are also other reasons why having a sense of purpose is good for you.

As well as helping you live longer, purpose has been linked to enjoying better resilience, which is the trait that helps you adapt and keep moving forward when life gets tough.

“We don’t know exactly why it makes so much difference, but we do know that there are both physical and mental health benefits associated with having a sense of purpose,” Assoc Prof Kern says.

“And on the other hand, we know that if someone lacks that sense of purpose, it can lead to depression and hopelessness.”

The power of purpose to improve memory

The results of a US study offer a clue as to why purpose gives such a health boost.

The study shows a clear link between living with a sense of purpose and having memories that are more accessible, coherent and vivid.

The researchers say this might be one reason why purpose delivers better physical and mental health.

“Memories help people to sustain their wellbeing, social connections and cognitive health,” says study co-author Antonio Terracciano, a professor at Florida State University’s College of Medicine.

“This research gives us more insight into the connections between a sense of purpose and the richness of personal memories.

“The vividness of those memories and how they fit into a coherent narrative may be one pathway through which purpose leads to these better outcomes.”

How to find your purpose

Not sure what your purpose is? It pays to consider whether your sense of purpose has gone wandering.

“Generally speaking, if you feel like everything is draining and a real struggle for you, it may mean you’re lacking a sense of purpose or that you aren’t living in line with your purpose.”

She says identifying your purpose is a process of discovery.

Remember, it will always align with your values and who you are as a person.

To help find your purpose, think about things such as:

  • What do I hope for?
  • What are my passions?
  • What lights me up inside?

Purpose is not cut and dried

Assoc Prof Kern says you can be driven and motivated by more than one purpose at a time, and purpose can also be fluid.

“Your sense of purpose can absolutely change over time and at different life stages, such as when you have young children or reach retirement,” she says.

And remember: There’s no purpose that’s too humble.

“A sense of purpose doesn’t have to be grand to be worthy,” Assoc Prof Kern says.

“What we know from centenarians is that their sense of purpose often comes from very routine things – something as simple as needing to check in on a neighbour every day.”

Written by Karen Fittall.