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How a Sense of Purpose Impacts Your Emotional Health

Discover how having a sense of purpose can positively impact your emotional health as you chart a course for better overall well-being.

Why Is Purpose Important in Life and How A Sense of Purpose Can Impact Emotional Health

Everyone has a purpose in life. The key is to recognize what that purpose is, own it, live it, and be truly happy fulfilling that purpose. You may have times in your life when you seem to lack a sense of purpose. Perhaps you're tired, worn out, and not feeling your best. Or maybe you're in a life transition, and you seem a little lost. You might feel as adrift as a raft in a vast ocean. Why is purpose important in life? Because it can impact your emotional health and your physical health.

Your Mind-Body Connection Affects Your Health

Your mind can alter your physical body over time. Take, for example, fear. You're walking along your favorite nature trail. You suddenly see a snake slither quickly across the path. You jump in surprise, let out a yelp, and quickly take a few steps back. After you take a few quick breaths, you feel your heart racing, and maybe you're a little sweaty. In a few seconds, you realize it was just a little garter snake, and it's completely harmless.

This is a simple example of the "fight or flight" response in a temporary situation. Now, think of a situation that might make you experience a negative emotion, like fear, over time. Maybe there's something in your professional life that makes you constantly anxious. It didn't start out as anxiety. It was annoying at first because you arrived late to work due to traffic. Then you were frustrated when you finally got to work because you missed an important staff meeting. Following that, you discover someone was promoted over you because of that meeting. Now, you're anxious that if you continue to drop the ball at work, you'll miss out on financial opportunities.

That anxiety you feel can lead to adverse health consequences. You could start to feel tired and even angry. You might have headaches, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, or a constant feeling of sadness.

It started as frustration, but it led to something that affected your health and well-being. Your mind-body connection in this example is important because it can manifest as physical symptoms.

Why Is Purpose Important in Life?

More on the mind-body connection in a moment.

Purpose motivates humans to have a sense of accomplishment in their lives. Having a purpose provides a basic guide for your overall behavior, making life decisions, setting goals, and creating meaning for your everyday tasks. Maybe your purpose is to be a good parent, which is why you work hard to provide for them. Perhaps your goals are to own a successful business that changes the world in some way. Another lofty goal is to help people who are going through something you endured earlier in life.

Everyone has a unique purpose, and it comes from three basic principles, according to bestselling author Richard Leider: gifts, passion, and values. All of these may change as you grow and mature. As a child, these three items were shaped by your family environment and your experiences. Maybe you loved spending time outdoors with your parents when they took you on camping trips, so you turned those pleasant memories into becoming a park ranger or starting a camping goods store.

A life purpose is important to keep you on track to achieve your goals while enjoying the journey. However, more basically, a sense of purpose can affect your emotional well-being. This means a sense of purpose could impact your physical health because the mind affects the body.

How Does a Sense of Purpose Impact Your Emotional Health?

Two studies, one from 2020 and one from 2013, support the assertion that having a sense of purpose has positive outcomes for your emotional health, while the inverse is also true.

In 2020, researchers at the University of California-San Diego published their findings after surveying more than 1,000 people. The results suggest you will feel better both physically and mentally if you have a sense of purpose in life. According to WebMD, researchers gave more than 100 questionnaires to people 21 and older.

The UCSD study found that people who expressed having meaning in their lives were more likely to feel physically and mentally healthy, while those searching for meaning were less likely to feel healthy. Older people felt these associations more strongly, which makes sense because older people no longer raise young children, probably have secure jobs, and are moving towards retirement. Older people may also think more about their own mortality as their life proceeds to their golden years.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Simon Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin noted that we should pursue activities that we love, are meaningful to us personally, and make them a vital part of our lives rather than an afterthought.

Psychology Today says people with a strong sense of life purpose tend to engage in healthier behaviors, such as exercising and participating in preventive health activities. People who lack a sense of purpose are more likely to have strokes, dementia, and heart attacks.

A study from the University of Wisconsin in 2013 states that subjects with a sense of purpose could recover from stress and trauma more readily compared to those who lacked a sense of purpose. Researchers noted that having a sense of purpose insulated people from the deleterious effects of stress and trauma because they have better emotional regulation when a negative situation provokes them.

In other words, having a positive sense of life purpose keeps you moving forward, helps you handle stress better, and lessens the impact of stressful situations over the long term.

Other factors are in play as well. People with a purpose may have improved brain function, higher cognition, better memory, and lower instances of depression, according to a 2016 study of nearly 3,500 individuals.

This shows how a sense of purpose in your mind can affect what's going on in your body.

What Happens to Our Emotional Health When We Don't Have a Life Purpose?

The same article on Psychology Today says a relatively new term, "purpose anxiety," has crept into psychological literature. First mentioned in 2014, purpose anxiety may arise during times of transition from one stage of life to another. This is when people may try to find a new purpose in life, such as when they graduate from high school or retire from a job.

Signs of purpose anxiety might range from:

• Constantly switching jobs

• Comparing yourself to others regularly

• Focusing on failures rather than accomplishments

• Going from one close relationship to another, trying to find the right person

Don't worry. Having these things doesn't mean you're lost or have a psychological condition. It could just mean you're temporarily adrift or had a minor setback. Try not to let these minor setbacks become more serious.

How Do We Find Our Life's Purpose?

If you feel lost and without a purpose, try finding a sense of inspiration from those around you. Hang out with people who can instill values in your life.

• Try volunteering your time or money to a worthy cause.

• Meet new people at places you enjoy, like school, a concert, or your place of worship.

• Ask for feedback from your friends and family.

• Surround yourself with positive people.

• Answer questions like, "Why do I do what I do?" and "Why do I buy certain things?"

• Explore different interests you're curious about but haven't delved into.

You might consider talking to a life coach or counselor who can offer relevant and objective tips on how you can find your life's purpose.

The reason purpose is important in your life is that you can live longer and be happier. It doesn't mean that lacking a life purpose makes you grouchy or shortens your life. But being happy at what you do can impact your health and the health of those around you.

The key to success is to keep an open mind and to be happy. Recognize that, if you feel lost, finding a life purpose is a process. You may not get the answers you seek right away. But moving toward finding your purpose is a good start.


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